Army recognizes autonomous-aviation engineers
July 31, 2014
- Hossein Mansur and Matt Whalley, both senior aerospace engineers with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, have earned 2012 Research and Development Achievement Awards.
- "The need is re-supplying forward operating points without having to put convoys on the road and exposing them to [improvised explosive devices]."
- "We're trying to bolster those core technologies that would enable new types of operations or expanded operations with autonomous helicopters."
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (July 31, 2014) -- Two U.S. Army engineers recently received national recognition for their efforts in advancing autonomous aviation for the military.
Hossein Mansur and Matt Whalley, both senior aerospace engineers with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, have earned 2012 Research and Development Achievement Awards.
The Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology presents the awards annually to recognize outstanding scientific or engineering achievement or technical leadership.
Mansur garnered an Outstanding Achievement Award for his work on the K-MAX unmanned helicopter system, from October 2009 to October 2011. The K-MAX, which can lift up to 6,000 pounds, represented a breakthrough for the military in autonomous aerial resupply, he said.
"The need is re-supplying forward operating points without having to put convoys on the road and exposing them to [improvised explosive devices]," said Mansur, who works for the Aviation Development Directorate at Moffett Field, California, as part of RDECOM's Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center. "You can do that with normal helicopters, but it costs more, and it also puts pilots in danger. The need was to fly supplies with an unmanned helicopter."
Mansur said the greatest challenge was developing the system for the high-altitude, high-turbulence and high-wind environments that the helicopter would face in Afghanistan. He developed and validated an extensive simulation-modeling suite and was responsible for the analysis and optimization of a complex core flight control system.
During his two years of work, the project emerged from a developmental program, to demonstration flight tests and finally to deployment in theater with the Navy in December 2011.
"Even though the aircraft is flying autonomously, a pilot was on board [during flight tests] to control the aircraft if the control laws were not doing what they were supposed to do. Their comments were: 'The aircraft flies the way I would.' It's the best comment you can get from a flight-test pilot," he said.
The Navy placed two of the aircraft into service immediately. They were scheduled for a six-month demonstration period, but because of their success in delivering a new capability, they remained in Afghanistan, Mansur said.
Whalley won an Outstanding Technical Leadership Award for guiding a government-contractor team that developed software algorithms for low-altitude autonomous flight operations. The work concentrated on obstacle field navigation and safe landing area determination.
"With any helicopter, the strength of that platform is the ability to hover and operate in close proximity to the ground or obstacles," said Whalley, also with AMRDEC's Aviation Development Directorate. "To do that autonomously requires some new technologies -- terrain sensors, navigation algorithms and programs that can look at the ground and find the safe landing spot. My group has been focused on that for several years. We're trying to bolster those core technologies that would enable new types of operations or expanded operations with autonomous helicopters."
In 2011, the software algorithms were validated and further developed into commercial software libraries and distributed under a technology transfer agreement. Whalley and his team then demonstrated the scalability of the technologies and software by migrating the algorithms to AMRDEC's full-authority JUH-60A Black Hawk helicopter for flight testing.
"We showed that the same approach could be used at full scale that had been successful at model scale," he said.
Whalley and Mansur have shared contributions during their 30-year careers as engineers in Army aviation. They also began their journeys together, in the early 1980s.
They each earned a bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, in 1984. In 1987, they earned master of science degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University.
"Hossein and I were both hired on the same day -- Aug. 6, 1984. We were college roommates," Whalley said.
The Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.
RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness--technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection and sustainment--to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.