Features

Chad R. Frost, Intelligent Systems Division’s Area Lead for Autonomous Systems and Robotics, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

NTB: What other current or recent projects have you begun with spacecraft design?

Frost: We're very involved in NASA's small spacecraft projects.  My team's responsible for flight software on the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission, as well as mission operations and ground data systems, and we had some of those same roles on the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission. We're frequently developing new mission and technology concepts to propose to NASA's calls as well as other government calls, or potentially, to develop these with commercial partners.

Lately, there's been a lot of interest in highly distributed swarms, or constellations, or what's called fractionated systems, of very small spacecraft. And what kinds of new and novel missions these microspacecraft can enable. , we'll have "spacecraft -on-a-chip" -- in the meanwhile, we're trying to make every part of the spacecraft smaller, lighter, and more capable. There's ongoing work to develop spacecraft that use the processors and systems and sensors from smartphones, and to develop multi-functional components such as solar panels integrated with other systems. We're really involved in what I think is the cutting-edge of the spacecraft we're going to see in orbit in the next several decades.

NTB: What's the most exciting project that you're working on currently?

Frost: We're involved in so many different things, and there are so many exciting aspects to all of them. It'd be hard to pick anyone. I'll go with a recent one just because it is really exciting. One of our teams, led by Dave Smith, has developed a system called the Emergency Landing Planner, or ELP, and it's designed to integrate into an aircraft's flight management system. Say an aircraft has a failure or is damaged in some way while en route: Right now the pilot needs to figure out what's the best airport to land that aircraft at, subject to what the aircraft can do, what airports are within range, what wind conditions and weather conditions prevail, length of runway, many competing factors that a pilot needs to think through. Often now, to talk on the radio with air traffic control to figure out "Ok, what are the winds at that potential airport?" and if the winds are too high, or are in the wrong direction, now he's got to go look at a different airport. It is quite a complex task performed under very trying circumstances. If you've got a fire in the cargo hold, you want to put that airplane on the ground right now, and figuring out where to go and what airport you can actually reach is really a challenge. planner takes these various factors into consideration, and proposes possible routes and landing sites to the pilot, ordering them according to estimated risk.  The ELP was developed from the start to integrate directly into existing commercial aircraft cockpits, using a standard CDU.

This system that's been prototyped and now tested in fairly high-fidelity simulation has just had outstanding results. We got wonderful comments back from the line pilots who came in and tried it out. It was developed from the get-go to be easy to integrate into a modern, commercial aircraft. It'll fit right into existing systems. I think it's got great potential. I think it's something we'll see in lots of cockpits very soon. As compared to the more research technology that we often are developing, this is stuff that is appropriate, useful, and it's going to be out there soon, and I'm very excited by it.

NTB: What are some of the other commercial applications with your work with NASA?

Frost: I don't want to get into too many gory details of the specifics, but I'm frequently talking with potential partners and collaborators in academia, other government agencies, and of course, industry. NASA has unique experience that we can bring to the table to help others succeed, and of course, we have a large and increasing body of software and technologies that can be licensed, or in more and more cases, downloaded directly in the form of open source. Some notable examples of our recent commercial technology transfer and partnerships include our imaging and computer visualization work that we've done with Microsoft's Worldwide Telescope, Google's Moon and Mars 3D, the Gigapan Robotic Camera and backend server software, and many others. It's very exciting for us to work with partners out there that get our technology out into the public and have it do great things, and we're always looking for more opportunities to do exactly that.

NTB: I saw that you've worked specifically with helicopters early on. I'm interested in how that came about and particularly what your role was in the first human-powered helicopter?

Frost: That goes back some time, I guess, I worked on the human-powered helicopter at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. This was called the Da Vinci Project. I worked on it from about 1985-1990 when I was an undergraduate there. It resulted in the world's first human-powered hover in, I think, 1989. I helped build, design, and test a lot of different pieces of the various iterations of that helicopter that we went through.