NASA awards $80K to Buckeye engineers through University Research Challenge

Posted: November 15, 2023
Luke McSherry, Abhinay Paladugu (kneeling), Connor Kannally and Izzy Furl stand together with their project for unmanned aerial vehicles.
(L to R) Luke McSherry, Abhinay Paladugu (kneeling), Connor Kannally and Izzy Furl are developing and testing a visual aid for supporting human operators in diagnosing contingencies for unmanned aerial vehicles. 

Heeding the advice that “an idea never dies,” integrated systems engineering PhD candidates Connor Kannally and Abhinay Paladugu found success the second time around in NASA’s University Student Research Challenge. 

Kannally, who is serving as the project lead for the $80,000 award, said the pair initially pitched their idea of developing decision aids for envisioned urban air mobility (UAM). Though unsuccessful in their first attempt, they took the feedback they received and expanded their team, adding two computer science and engineering undergraduate students Izzy Furl and Luke McSherry. Their advisor is Assistant Professor Martijn IJtsma.

In today’s transportation ecosystem, air transportation can be expensive and difficult to access. The aviation industry and government organizations are working toward developing a new safe, affordable and efficient transportation system to increase accessibility to air transportation. This ecosystem, referred to as advanced air mobility (AAM), aims to connect rural and urban areas using unmanned, electric air vehicles. UAM is a subsystem of AAM and refers to air transportation in low altitude, urban environments such as Columbus and Cleveland. 

Because UAM operations will be enabled by highly automated systems, an engineering challenge is to design automation that can effectively team with human pilots and operators, particularly in challenging scenarios.

“The envisioned system supporting unmanned aircraft world will be dynamic,” said Kannally. “There’s so much automation in these future systems, we must not forget that humans are the most capable of adapting to the world in real-time. Although safe automation exists, we always need a human somewhere in the equation.” 

As part of their proposal, the team is developing a support tool for operators to monitor future airspaces full of automated vehicles. “We’re working towards integration of humans and technology for the future of mobility,” Kannally added. 

The team’s goal is to develop novel visual aids for future airspace operators to anticipate the behavior of the highly automated systems. The team is also developing a simulation environment to test the effectiveness of the visual aids. The project has twofold benefits, developing novel information designs to support human-automation interaction in addition to advancing the field of cognitive systems engineering. 

While Kannally specializes in cognitive systems engineering, Paladugu earned a master’s degree in computer science and engineering from Penn State University.

“Having computer science skills lets us stand out,” said Paladugu regarding his background and the addition of Furl and McSherry. “Our diversity of skillsets complements the project nicely. This is allowing us to develop software systems while also considering how the sub-system may be integrated into a larger system including both humans and machines.” 

“It also has given us a lot more flexibility in how we approach the development of the simulation environment and dynamic information representations,” added Kannally. “We can kind of make our own interfaces and experiment.” 

According to Paladugu, the project can be a springboard for the design of future systems requiring human-automation interaction and teaming.

“The pace of technological development is high, and this project can help us communicate the value of considering human and machine interactions early in system design,” he said. “We look at more abstract patterns and functionality of human-automation interaction while trying to anticipate what might challenge the effectiveness of this interaction.” 

McSherry, who also has a data analytics background and worked as an intern at NASA Johnson Space Center this past summer, is working on modifying an open-source air traffic control simulation framework called BlueSky, to include vertical takeoff and lift vehicles in low altitude airspaces. He also is developing multiple scenarios requiring operators to detect and diagnose contingencies in the airspace. 

In an effort to add an entrepreneurial element to the challenge, NASA requires the student teams to crowdfund, which also offers an opportunity to gain exposure for the project. The team receives half of the award money upfront and after raising $2,000 through crowdfunding, they can receive the remainder. 

Furl has led the team’s cost-sharing campaign through Buckeye Funder, Ohio State’s crowdfunding platform. Her specialization is computer graphics and, in addition to creating the team website, Furl is assisting with the visual aspects of creating simulation displays for unmanned aircraft in the trial runs.

“It’s extremely important to have a group of people who come from diverse environments,” she said. “I’m thankful for my niche of computer science and business.” 

Kannally noted that Furl and Paladugu also have been involved in stakeholder engagement, a key area of the project given that the stakeholders have different interests and ideas.

“My main role is talking to stakeholders to understand their pain points and what are the main things they would like to see, aligning their interests with what we’re showing,” added Paladugu.

The diagnostic aid and the insights gained from testing will advance UAM research and contribute to the safety of future UAM operations. The team is confident that findings from this project will also lead to more generalizable insights for designing technology-centric systems that work with humans instead of replacing them.  

original story by Nancy Richison, Integrated Systems Engineering