An MSc student in Aeronautical Engineering at the Technical University of Munich, Sophie came to Cranfield last year, through Europe’s Erasmus Programme, to work on the ASTRAEA 2 project.
“It’s only a six-month assignment,” she explained, “but it’s giving me a chance to do applied research in autonomy and decision-making and to be involved in the effort to integrate UAVs in unrestricted airspace.”
Sophie’s research focuses on aircraft icing and how autonomous systems on a UAV can emulate human pilot decision-making when icing conditions occur. Her work involves modeling the multitude of processes involved plus interviewing pilots with icing experience to determine their thought process as icing begins.
While airframe/engine de-icing hardware is for the most part effective, truly severe icing remains a major concern – it can cause loss of control and, in extreme cases, a crash. In manned aircraft, the relative severity of icing and the appropriate response is determined by the pilot. For example, should the pilot simply change altitude to avoid the icing, or activate de-icing systems and proceed, or activate and immediately change course to escape the adverse conditions?
“It’s a spontaneous judgement call, based on experience,” Sophie said, “and since there’s no pilot on a UAV, we’re representing the required decision-making process and all the options in the autonomous on-board software.”
This research is an important part of the ASTRAEA programme’s objectives because an autonomous de-icing capability is one of the requirements for UAV flight certification in civil airspace.
As to the future of UAVs after ASTRAEA ends next year, Sophie could visualise the way ahead despite her brief time with the programme.
“UAVs have great potential,” she concluded, “because they can perform difficult and dangerous tasks without exposing pilots to risk. The challenge is bringing together the technology and regulations required to achieve safe flight and ASTRAEA’s come a long way with these complex issues. There’s still a lot to be done, but UAVs will become a common sight – it’s just a matter of time.”