Naval Postgraduate School Professors Receive Prestigious AIAA Flight Control Award

Story Number: NNS100903-08Release Date: 9/3/2010 11:26:00 AM
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By Amanda Stein, Naval Postgraduate School Public Affairs

MONTEREY, Calif. (NNS) -- At a ceremony in Toronto Aug. 3, two Naval Postgraduate School faculty members received the highest award presented by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) for the mechanics and control of flight.

Professors Isaac Ross and Fariba Fahroo received the AIAA Mechanics and Control of Flight (MCF) Award for their pioneering research in pseudospectral optimal control theory now being applied for aircraft, spacecraft and autonomous systems flight control.

The honor was jointly presented by the AIAA Guidance Navigation and Control Technical Committee, the Astrodynamics Technical Committee and the Atmospheric Flight Mechanics Technical Committee.

"For the Naval Postgraduate School, this award is a national recognition of an outstanding partnership between an engineering scholar [Ross] and an applied mathematician [Fahroo] in developing the theory, computational algorithms and validation of novel maneuvering strategies for autonomous space systems," said Dr. S.S. Sritharan, dean of the NPS Graduate School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Ross and Fahroo began working together on optimal control research projects in 1997 as NPS assistant professors. By teaming their expertise, they hoped to find a solution to a complex research question using pseudospectral methods. The project proved to be complex, but they persisted and one day all the pieces fell into place.

Ross recalled the exact moment when Fahroo shared a solution she had come up with that at first seemed at odds with other results they had.

"It seemed too good to be true," said Ross. "I looked at her results and I started jumping up and down. She said, 'What is it? What is it? Calm down!' And I said, 'Do you know what this means?!' This was literally a breakthrough in research. For our field, it was a huge result. At the time, she didn't recognize what a big deal it was."

Eventually, both professors recognized the significance of their theoretical results and decided to see if they applied to practical scenarios. They co-wrote a paper presented at the annual AIAA Guidance, Navigation and Control Conference, where it became clear they needed to convince the aeronautics and astronautics community of the practical applications of their work.

Undeterred, Ross designed and created a software program called DIDO, so that other researchers could apply their theories to flying manned and autonomous systems.

Recognizing the potential for applying pseudospectral optimal control theory in the Defense community, Ross received approval from then NPS Aeronautics and Astronautics Department Chairman Max Platzer to begin teaching the concepts to students. With the support of NPS leadership, the resulting Trajectory Optimization class proved a success, and many of Ross' students who graduated in the early 2000s continue to apply the concepts in their various fields.

"The students -- once they saw the results, even though the stuff was unproven to everyone but us at the time --loved it," said ross. "They were saying, 'This is great! We can do this with it, we can do that with it.' They started applying it to things that we hadn't thought about, and their ideas become infectious. That's how the students became key players. The moment they see it, and what it can do, they find new applications for it."

Ross still keeps in touch with many former students, some of whom are looking for ways to cast the DIDO software net even further within the Defense industry. One former Ph.D. student experimented with the applications using autonomous systems and expressed an interest in teaching the concept to undergraduate students at the Naval Academy.

"He applied the research to ground robots and really did amazing things with it," said Ross. "He has come up with a lot of different scenarios and situations using this formula, such as navigating through rough waters at sea, or taking a swarm of robotic vehicles from point A to point B in formation without colliding with one another."

The basis for the program continues to inspire solutions to problems within the aeronautics and astronautics field. Since it was developed, DIDO has been used in over 25 countries around the world, and by NASA on two occasions to navigate the International Space Station in the most efficient way possible.

Fahroo is currently on leave working for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Ross currently teaches and does research in the NPS Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, Space Systems Academic Group, and Undersea Warfare Academic Group.

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