Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
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AEM faculty spotlight:

Gary J. Balas

Under the direction of Department Head Gary J. Balas, undergraduates have the opportunity to develop theory that could make the world of flight safer. Balas, whose research interests lie in the expansive realm of flight control, regularly works with undergraduates interested in creating and testing control theory through the Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle research group. In what follows, Professor Balas discusses his research and how students play an important role.

Gary J. Balas

What issues do you address through your research?
My research focuses on aircraft flight control, real-time control issues, and advanced flight control algorithms, among other areas. With all these algorithms, mathematical constructs that try to accomplish some goal, the idea is to develop the theory and transition it to development of software and a real system. The UAV project provides a platform to test these algorithms in a real environment.

How does one test an algorithm on the UAV?
We implement them in a small, credit-card sized computer that is housed onboard an aircraft we have constructed. Using radio control, algorithms are activated onboard. We watch what the vehicle is doing and implement appropriate algorithms.

What is the purpose of developing control theory?
The end goal is to help NASA meet its goal to improve the safety of aircraft flight. The idea is the advanced flight control algorithms will allow us to adapt to failures or faults in systems and create an aircraft that will land, for instance, even when there is damage or failures.

Could you give an example where such algorithms would be useful?
The Boeing 747 aircraft accident in Amsterdam. It took off and lost hydraulics and two engines. The pilot recognized this and tried to make a turn and come around to land back at the airport. As he was turning around, they kept losing more and more altitude. The aircraft didn’t have enough power to make it back to the airport and ended up crashing into an apartment building. The idea is to use that example where we have a lot of information about the aircraft to see if new algorithms could be adapted to reassign the control of the vehicle to other surfaces that are not normally used, like flaps, to successfully return the vehicle to land.

Is there one big question everyone is trying to address in your field?
Control has its hands in many pots. There are always hot theoretical questions. From an engineering aspect, developing advanced fault detection algorithms is a main challenge. It is a continual evolution that requires experts from not only the controls field but also domain-specific experts.

Why work with students?
The most exciting thing is that students get to be involved from theory to flight. Certainly the advancement of smaller computers that you can put on board along with smaller sensor packs allows us to provide tremendous development of instrumentation. Students can get the excitement of a flight test. It’s there, all on the line, an algorithm that’s going to work, or not. They’re responsible if it’s successful or not. There’s such a difference between seeing a real plane fly rather than just a simulation.

What most interests you in this field?
The aircraft safety aspect - using intelligent algorithms where failures have occurred and being able to successfully reconfigure aircraft surfaces and engines to allow it to survive.

How can interested students get involved in your research?
We have always had a strong undergrad group associated with UAV project. If a student is interested, he or she should go to the UAV website, and see what’s there. Meetings Tuesday at lunch, and the student would be welcome to come.


Last Modified: Sunday, 05-May-2013 14:37:34 CDT -- this is in International Standard Date and Time Notation