Chad R. Frost supervises the Autonomous Systems and Robotics (ASR) technical area in Ames Research Center's Intelligent Systems Division. ASR staff develops advanced automation and control technologies to enable safer and more efficient aircraft, make robots smarter and more capable, increase scientific productivity, and allow spacecraft to explore the universe with greater independence.
Chad R. Frost: We're investigating all sorts of interesting concepts aimed at increasing efficiency and safety of aircraft: wings that can change shape, how to integrate an ever-increasing number of control systems on an aircraft, and how to make aircraft flyable even when they're severely damaged. Some of these concepts indeed exist just in the computer, but others have made it all the way to full-scale flight tests, and there's just an amazing spectrum of things that are coming down the research pipeline that we hope will someday make it into the commercial world and do wonderful things for the aircraft that we spend so much of our time on these days.
NTB: How would you say an aircraft is safer and better than, say, 5-10 years ago? What are the exciting developments?
Frost: Even in the span of 5-10 years, there have been quite a few changes. I think aircraft coming off the line today are better than their predecessors in lots of ways. Since we're focused on the control aspects in my staff, I can talk about that in a little more detail. Fly-by-wire [replacement of manual flight control of an aircraft with an electronic interface] is now pretty much ubiquitous for big, commercial transport aircraft, and for an aircraft designer, that gives you a great deal of flexibility. The basic airframe can be less stable, potentially more aerodynamically efficient, while maintaining good handling qualities for the pilots. Aircraft can handle consistently across the whole flight envelope, and since a computer is helping out, control surfaces on the aircraft can be used in really novel ways that they couldn't before. the mechanical connection between the pilot's stick and the control surfaces is removed, as is the case for fly-by-wire, the control surfaces can more easily be used in new combinations. As an example, ailerons might be "reflexed," or deflected slightly upward, to improve aerodynamic efficiency in high-speed flight.
Now we have aircraft that can fly even very complex maneuvers, especially at low speed that just really wasn't possible previously, and of course, now they can use the autopilot and the flight management system to do very sophisticated navigation. And we have digital communications into the cockpit for functions like traffic and weather. Even five years ago, that really didn't exist in any substantive way. That's all come about fairly recently, and is having a transformative effect on how aircraft operate on a daily basis.
NTB: What's the current state of unmanned aerial vehicles?
Frost: That's a very active area of research around the world. As you know, it's driven by both military and civilian needs. From NASA's standpoint, we have interests both in developing and operating unmanned aerial systems to support science missions, and in the basic and applied research needed to ensure the UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System), both NASA's as well as others, will eventually be able to safely integrate into the national aerospace system. That's our big emphasis now: These aircraft need to be able to operate in the national aerospace system integrated with commercial traffic, integrated with general aviation, and be able to carry out missions in a very safe way.
Now, our work really covers both aspects. We've developed software systems to help distributed mission operations teams manage their science campaigns, for example for the western states' wildfire missions that we've flown the last several years, as well as for the onboard autonomy and control software that you need to give unmanned aircraft systems greater robustness to failures, and the ability, say, to track phenomena while flying around --and do that autonomously and, of course, to work together to solve complex problems.