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Graduate student research tests aircraft piloting systems

Two doctoral students in The University of Tulsa Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering are studying autonomous piloting systems for fixed-wing airplanes to improve safety in small aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

piloting systemsJustin Fuller and Giovanni Miraglia stand in Mabee Gym’s defunct swimming pool adjusting cables on a shiny red airplane. They use the small, fixed-wing aircraft as a tool to experiment with aircraft sensors.

Miraglia is a member of the Vehicle Autonomy Intelligence Lab, a research group at TU that is building safety systems for general aviation and unmanned airplanes. Originally from Italy, he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Sapienza University of Rome. While studying in Italy, he came to TU and worked on the calibration of a camera-based localization system. He also began work on a system based on ultra-wideband radar technology.

“We are trying to build a safety system for fixed-wing airplanes and also a certification strategy,” Miraglia said. “Certification is the process to prove that the system will not fail. It’s very important to achieve certification, so you can prove the system will actually save a life.”

Earlier this year, he attended the Digital Avionics Systems Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, where companies and organizations from around the world demonstrated their work and proposed ideas. Miraglia’s research earned him two paper awards. He presented his work concerning systems used to limit the space in which the aircraft can operate (geofencing). His paper addressed situations in which an airplane flying in a corridor unexpectedly leaves the corridor. He proposed a design that would find a suitable trajectory and return the plane to a safe space.

“Right now, many companies, such as Amazon, want to build a certified UAV to deliver goods or carry people, but they face a block in integration because there isn’t a certification process for this kind of vehicle,” Miraglia said.

He and his peers are attempting to address unanswered questions about certification of automatic aircraft control systems and apply their findings to a fixed-wing aircraft. Fuller said this type of aircraft certification is important as UAVs grow in popularity.

“General aviation aircraft have long needed more research in this area, but due to costs they’re not able to certify a lot of avionics like bigger planes,” he said. “We can acquire a fixed-wing airplane and put safety systems on it for testing and apply what we learn in the general aviation domain to benefit small planes that carry four to six people.”

Fuller, a native Oklahoman, arrived at TU to work on his doctorate 10 years after receiving his master’s degree in electronic engineering from the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on the interaction between different safety systems that prevent ground collisions or keep aircraft away from military bases.

“We’re looking for a rigorous method to find out where the holes are in safety coverage, how big they are and what changes can be recommended to eliminate those holes,” Fuller said.

Fuller and Miraglia run test flights of the fixed-wing aircraft at another location in Tulsa while preliminary work in the Mabee Gym pool continues. To learn more about UAV research, contact the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering or the Vehicle Autonomy and Intelligence Lab.