Hook and NASA team up to improve airplane safety, win national award

University of Tulsa Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Loyd Hook says the country is on the verge of a technological revolution in transportation. These changes will be brought about by automation, which has started to appear in the form of autopilot systems that must be overseen by a human driver or pilot. “The next step will be automation that makes us safer by reacting to dangerous situations faster, more precise and more dependably than a human can,” Hook said. 

Auto GCAS in Air Force F-16s

pilot safety
Professor Hook with his class at the Tulsa Air National Guard Base (138th fighter wing) in front of an Auto GCAS F-16.

This is the basic idea behind the United States Air Force Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS) that Hook has worked on for the past several years with a group of researchers. This system takes control from a disoriented, or incapacitated pilot, and saves the pilot and airplane from crashing. The system already has been credited with saving the lives of 10 pilots in U.S. Air Force F-16s and is currently considered the highest level of automation in any production aircraft or automobile.  

Before coming to TU, Hook was part of a team at NASA who partnered with the U.S. Air Force, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Lockheed Martin to build and test the F-16 Auto GCAS system. Now, Hook, a small group at NASA and the FAA, led by NASA Principal Investigator for Autonomy Mark Skoog, have been working to bring this lifesaving technology to the public. “Crashes in General Aviation, which consists of small, personal airplanes, make up the vast majority of airplane fatalities in the United States, nearly 90% over the last 20 years, Hook said. 

USGIF achievement award

NASA, the FAA, and the TU team have been working to get these systems to the public as soon as possible to save pilots’ lives. As a part of this project, Hook and Skoog were awarded the 2020 United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s (USGIF) achievement award for terrain system development and evaluation for Auto GCAS. “Auto GCAS requires precise geospatial information from around the world,” Hook explained. It is a lot of data and it must be meticulously studied in order to assure Auto GCAS works how and when it is supposed to.” In addition to this award, the Auto GCAS team, including Hook and Skoog, received the 2018 Collier Trophy, aviation’s highest honor, which was presented to the Auto GCAS team for achievements such as “expanding the technology for F-16 users and civil aviation and setting certification standards that marked aviation’s entry into the age of autonomy.” 

The future of automation

However, Auto GCAS is just one piece to an overall larger strategy. “Automation will soon lead to cars and planes that are able to take persons where they would like to go, more or less, completely automatically,” Hook said. This will allow us to work or even sleep as our vehicles take us to our destinations faster and safer than we can ourselves.” 

Hook thinks this will have far reaching impacts on the way we live, not just the way we travel, and according to Hook, TU students will have a role to play in this future. “It will open up a larger set of possibilities for us to live where we want, instead of having to live close to our work or school, he explained. “TU students, working with our team, have already made significant contributions to vehicle automation and I feel the best is still to come.”