Flying the Crowded Skies AE Grad Student Wins NASA Scholarship to Improve Air Transportation
Our current air transportation system has reached its capacity, says Heather Arneson, a graduate student working under Cedric Langbort, a professor of aerospace engineering and the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory. Every day, roughly 50,000 flights must be managed by the U.S. system, Arneson explains, but that number is projected to increase to anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 flights per day by the year 2025.
Something has to give.
To solve the problem, the United States is actively developing the next-generation air transportation system, and Arneson is in the thick of the action. To work on the issue, she has received a highly-competitive NASA Aeronautics Scholarship, awarded to only five graduate students nationwide each year.
The NASA scholarship will fund two years of research—and a third, if needed. It also provides Arneson with two summer internships at top NASA research centers.
According to Arneson, there are two levels of research on the new air transportation system. The individual aircraft level focuses on using new technology for automatic collision detection and avoidance. Arneson is working at the flow control level, managing the flow of large groups of airplanes through specific air spaces. In particular, she is looking at ways to more efficiently reroute airplane traffic around regions when they become congested due to factors such as weather.
The current air transportation system relies on humans to monitor sections of air space. When the weather is bad, certain flights must be grounded until the weather clears, causing massive backups, she says. The next-generation system would be more dynamic, keeping the aircraft flowing as the flights are rerouted.
Arneson hails from Barrington, Rhode Island, and came to the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2005 after working on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission for three years. One of her professors at Cornell University, where she received her bachelor’s degree, was the lead researcher in developing panoramic cameras for the Mars rovers.
Arneson helped to calibrate the panoramic cameras, which are mounted on the rovers to take photographs of the Martian landscape. Once the first rover reached Mars in January of 2004, she then worked on the scientific team that took images of the Red Planet.
“Some of the most exciting moments were when the rovers would reach a crater,” she says. “Arriving at craters was really exciting because they could potentially reveal a lot about how the Martian surface was formed. It took us months to get to certain craters, but the long treks were well worth it.”
Today, Arneson’s research is a little bit closer to Earth—but equally exciting, she says.
As part of her master’s work at Illinois, she developed two algorithms that could be applied to an existing Eulerian flow model for air traffic management; but her focus was on air traffic between just a single take-off airport and single landing airport. Her PhD research will build on her master’s work, dealing with increasingly more complex network scenarios. She and Langbort will concentrate on distributed control algorithms to solve problems with air traffic delays, primarily those caused by weather.
“With weather conditions causing approximately 65 percent of the delays in the national airspace system in recent years,” she says, “adaptability to changing weather conditions will be an integral part of any new air transportation system.”