During normal operations an aircraft is operated by its autopilot. When the autopilot sense a dangerous condition, near or outside of the flight envelope, the autopilot disengages itself, returning control to the pilot. Well-trained pilots typically can deal with modest out-of-envelope challenges. A pilot who can deal with a significantly compromised flight envelope is very remarkable as happened with Captain Chesley Sullenberger ("Sully") and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles on US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009 when the aircraft struck a flock of geese just northeast of the George Washington Bridge and suddenly lost all engine power over Manhattan. The pilots glided their plane extraordinarily skillfully to a ditching in the Hudson River off Midtown Manhattan, saving all the passengers and averting a catastrophic crash in New York City. The National Transportation Safety Board official described it as the most successful ditching in aviation history. This capability to operate safely despite the exceptional situation well-outside the norm is the essence of this project, Virtual Sully.

Virtual Sully technology is a development towards full pilotless autonomy, capable of identifying the failure/fault, estimating the remaining control authority, assessing the environment and planning a new feasible mission, doing path planning and executing it safely within the compromised flight envelope. This architecture replaces the traditional top-down one-way adaptation between mission planning, trajectory generation, tracking and stabilizing controller, with a two-way adaptation between mission planning, trajectory generation, and the adaptation of controller parameters to improve the stability and robustness of the control system. The following thrusts are considered: 1) monitoring and capability auditing; 2) high-assurance control with multi-level adaptation; 3) fault-tolerant architecture for unmanned autonomous systems (UAS) with real-time guarantees; 4) development of hardware-in-the loop simulation environment and flight tests using unmanned air vehicle (UAV) prototypes. Fault-tolerant computing infrastructure that can withstand high-stress situations will be integrated within flight control architecture that adapts at multiple levels. The feasibility evaluation of the missions and regenerated trajectories within UAV's remaining capabilities is pursued with real-time guarantees. The testbed is based on hardware-in-the-loop simulation for various failures, as well as extensive tests using real UAVs.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Computer and Network Systems (CNS)
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Ralph Wachter
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Georgia Tech Research Corporation
United States
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