Flying High: Demoz Gebre-Egziabher

Like his colleague and research collaborator, Roumeliotis, Demoz Gebre-Egziabher, professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics, is working on navigation systems for things that fly and things that roll on the ground. In addition to navigational hardware and guidance systems, Gebre-Egziabher’s research group work focuses on developing algorithms to find your way around. In both cases, he uses UAVs—uninhabited aerial vehicles, or unmanned aircraft—as research tools.

“Our group’s research has two themes,” he said. “Using UAVs as test beds to develop new and novel ideas to improve safety and efficiency of passenger-carrying airplanes; the other is collaborating with local industry to develop UAVs as platforms for other applications like precision agriculture.”

Currently, he’s part of a research group developing systems that will allow UAVs to provide increasingly sophisticated uses both for designing navigation systems and for collecting data from the air on everything from traffic flow in cities to the growth and specific needs for water, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides of farm fields under cultivation. The latter use could revolutionize agriculture, targeting inputs and greatly reducing the amounts of fertilizer and other materials applied to fields, with obvious implications for improving yield while minimizing environmental damage.

“UAVs are flown without a pilot on board so they can be completely autonomous or piloted by someone on the ground, “ he explains. UAVs, he points out, “come in all sizes, ranging from those as large as commercial jets to vehicles as small as a hummingbird.”

Because UAVs are far less costly and dangerous to operate than manned aircraft, there is an intense interest to use them for a host of scientific and commercial applications.

“Among other things, our labs see UAVs as surrogate platforms for larger passenger- or cargo-carrying aircraft,” he said. “There are many new ideas and technologies you might want to test but typically they’re too costly and risky to try out on a full-scale aircraft carrying humans. So you apply ideas to UAVs, test them, and if they work, then scale them up to a larger plane.”

Within that group, Gebre-Egziabher says, his own personal focus is “navigation and state estimation” or using UAVs to explore new ways to navigate and guide aircraft in ways that that could make them safer and more efficient, and to achieve this, by testing new ideas in cost-effective ways.

“If you look at the way electronics for aircraft are designed now, new gear technologies and concepts require a long testing period to ensure they are safe, effective, and don’t have unintended consequences for use in manned aircraft,” he said. This takes years and a considerable amount of money. UAVs hold out the potential of cutting that time substantially, while eliminating any risk to human life.

He points to the current state of GPS use on commercial airplanes, as an example of how UAV-based development holds out hope of great leaps forward. “Everyone uses GPS,” he said. “However, commercial aviation has seen some of the slowest adaption of technology for safety-critical phases of flight such as landing. In fact, it has not fully adapted GPS, particularly in precision (automatic) landing applications.” The reason? “GPS is considered relatively new and much testing must be done before they can get approval for its use in that application.”