Research being conducted at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus could play a role in expanding restrictions on small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS), more commonly known as drones, being flown beyond the visual line of sight of their operators — marking an important milestone that would pave the way for advancements like drone delivery and urban air mobility, according to university officials.
Backed by funding from NASA’s University Student Research Challenge, the Assured Autonomy Research Initiative aims to improve the safety and reliability of drones by creating a redundant flight control system.
“The proposed system would serve as a backup to the primary flight computer, in the case of an in-flight loss of communications or control,” said Robert Moore, lead graduate researcher on the project and first-year student in the Unmanned and Autonomous Systems Engineering master’s program.
If successful, Moore believes that the project could help push the FAA toward easing current regulations, which would allow for wider use of autonomous aircraft in the National Airspace System.
“A secondary goal of this project is the development of a low-cost, variable-speed propeller for sUAS integration,” Moore added. “The use of variable pitch propellers in larger aircraft has proven to be an effective tool for increasing endurance, range, and efficiency.”
But first, to make the secondary safety system work, Moore and his team have to reverse-engineer software in the aircraft to send, rather than just receive, telemetry data, remote control directives, and information from the aircraft’s various sensors.
“It’s been a challenge,” said Moore. “But we’ve been attempting multiple software script approaches to overcome it.”
Undergraduates Joseph Ayd and Todd Martin have been “monumental” in the project’s development, according to Moore, writing software, modifying the airframe, and integrating hardware to detect system failures onboard the aircraft as well as control the switchover from the primary to the backup flight computer in case of failure. The two also assist in flight test operations, post-test data analysis, and installing hardware.
“The future of the UAS industry will depend upon beyond-the-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations,” said Martin, an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science senior. “This project has made significant progress toward attaining safe BVLOS operations, and we have successfully taken concepts and implemented them into a working prototype.”
“This is legitimate work that can have major real-world impacts,” said Dr. John Robbins, chair of the Aeronautical Science Department and principal investigator on the research. “This type of contingency system Robert has conceptualized and is in the process of proving would be akin to a ‘fail-safe’ for UAS operations, adding an additional layer of control and safety. The outcome of this project could change the way the entire industry looks at mitigating risk.”
The next step for the research effort is to testing. The researchers say they plan to accumulate reliability data by flying three of the same airframes 125 hours each.