From The Faculty: Simulating Urban Air Mobility

You’ve probably seem promo videos or read articles about “Urban Air Mobility” (UAM) – currently a hot research topic in aerospace engineering – where small aircraft capable of taking off and landing vertically transport people on short-hop flights within a city or between nearby destinations, avoiding heavy traffic congestion on the roads below. If successful, this concept of operations could have a very substantial positive societal impact. As with any potentially transformative technology, however, several barriers must first be overcome before widespread adoption is a possibility.

For instance, how do we guarantee that these revolutionary aircraft will have stable flight characteristics? How do we ensure that passengers get to enjoy a comfortable ride in them (a must for widespread adoption)? How do we design these aircraft to be “pilot-friendly” by design, so that it’s possible to train a large number of UAM pilots at a fraction of the cost of training a commercial airline pilot today?

These are some of the questions that we at the Vehicle Systems, Dynamics, and Design Laboratory (VSDDL) want to address. Over the last year, we’ve built (from scratch) the Reconfigurable Flight Simulator (RFS) – a flight simulation facility located in Gavin Room 257 designed to have the flexibility needed to do research on novel future aircraft concepts.

Team members (L-R) Cameron Leonard, Imon Chakraborty, Tommy Cox, Anthony Comer, Henry Reagan and Matt Seay in front of the reconfigurable flight simulator.

An interesting fact about the RFS – one that I’m immensely proud of – is it was designed and built by a team of mostly undergraduate students.

In the RFS, we use a large 16-foot diameter cylindrical screen and overhead projectors to display a 270-degree horizontal field-of-view image representing what the pilot would see “out-the-window.” Since we don’t know exactly what future aircraft designs will look like, we’ve designed the RFS to allow us to change the layout of the cockpit, the position and types of cockpit controls, and the design of the cockpit instruments and displays. We drive the RFS with a simulation model that we’re developing with funding from NASA Langley Research Center that lets us model a wide variety of flight vehicle designs and flight control system algorithms.

Later this year, we’ll use the RFS for a simulation study in which we’ll recruit three types of participants:

(i) certified flight instructors from among our colleagues in the Aviation Department, (ii) students currently training to be pilots, and (iii) people with driver’s licenses but no pilot training. These participants will get to “fly” a UAM vehicle in the simulator and perform some representative UAM piloting tasks – taking off, going from A-to-B, landing, etc. We’ll then analyze the flight data gathered and compare the relative performance of these three groups to gain insight on how to make these novel flight vehicles more pilot-friendly and easier to transition to with little or no prior aviation (piloting) experience.

If you’re interested in being part of this study, or you have ideas for some interesting research involving flight simulation, or if you’d just like to come out and see it, please let us know!

Imon Chakraborty is an assistant professor of aerospace engineering. Check out his lab’s website at vsddl.com.