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UTA Joins with Industry Partners to Develop Control Systems for Autonomous Aerial Vehicles

A University of Texas at Arlington aerospace engineer is teaming with industry partners to develop control systems for autonomous aerial vehicles that will increase their safety and detect structural issues.

Animesh Chakravarthy, associate professor in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, has received $333,000 in funding from Galaxy Unmanned Systems LLC to develop controls that will allow airships to operate autonomously, with an eventual objective of enabling urban air mobility. UTA aerospace engineering Professor Kamesh Subbarao is co-principal investigator on the project. UTA and Galaxy Unmanned Systems secured a total of $900,000 in Phase-1 and Phase-2 Small Business Technology Transfer funding from the Air Force.

Galaxy Unmanned Systems, which has been building helium-filled electric-propulsion airships in North Texas for nearly 20 years, will build the 35-foot-long airship structure. Chakravarthy and Subbarao will equip it with algorithms, software and a suite of sensors including multiple lidars, vision cameras and air data sensors that provide the airship with complete all-round situational awareness. The sensor fusion algorithms feed into the guidance, control and estimation algorithms that will enable the airship to perform autonomous navigation with collision avoidance capabilities. 

"It is exciting to work with an industry partner like Galaxy on this project," Chakravarthy said. "We will figure out optimal placement for each sensor, fuse them together and tie them to the guidance system. We'll also test the system before it's installed to ensure that it will be seamless in use on the airship."

The autonomous airship could eventually be used to move cargo or passengers at some point in the future. But its ability to hold in hover, maintain consistent altitude and turn make it most suitable for customers such as the Coast Guard and Border Patrol.

Galaxy Unmanned Systems offers a wide range of services related to unmanned aerial systems, including concept, design, manufacturing, certification, testing, payload configuration, sub-system integration, documentation, training and operations.

Chakravarthy also works with Celina, Texas-based CAD/CAM Systems to design a system to inspect F-35 fighter aircraft at Lockheed Martin's production facility in Fort Worth. He is writing an algorithm to have a scanner-equipped drone perform autonomous orbits around an F-35 fighter aircraft to scan it for structural damage or defects.

The algorithm will ensure that the drone is able to execute orbits in a precisely timed fashion because the scanner must move at a specific speed and at a specific distance from the aircraft to collect data correctly. It will also incorporate collision-avoidance features that Chakravarthy developed as a part of his National Science Foundation CAREER Award research.

"This project will allow Lockheed Martin to thoroughly inspect an aircraft anywhere without having to set up and take down scaffolding," Chakravarthy said. "Initially, the inspection will take place inside on the assembly line, but it could eventually be used outdoors to check an aircraft immediately after landing for damage from bird strikes, hail or stress forces."


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