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Embracing changing landscapes: autonomy, space exploration and diversity

A Q&A with Anthony Waas, the new Richard A. Auhll Department Chair of Aerospace Engineering and Felix Pawlowski Collegiate Chair at the University of Michigan.| Medium Read
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IMAGE:  Department Chair of Aerospace Engineering Anthony Waas. Photo: Joseph Xu

Where is aviation headed, and what is the role you envision for the future of Aero at U-M?

Autonomy is presenting itself as a disruptive technology. This is going to have a lot of impact in the way we do business, the way we train our students, and the way we do research.

In our department, we have multiple faculty who are leaders in autonomous systems. This area is closely related to the core aerospace field of control, but it also has tentacles in the emerging disciplines of data science and machine learning. Now is the time for U-M Aero to embrace a curriculum and a program that will cater to the training of future leaders in these emerging fields.

People always want to travel faster and cheaper. This is another opportunity, in the area of hypersonics. I think the outstanding issues are no longer disciplinarily oriented but how you integrate the disciplines of fluid dynamics, materials, structures, and novel propulsion concepts, all to bear on a vehicle that can go at Mach 5.

At the most recent 2018 meeting of the American Society for Composites [of which Waas was general chair], Greg Hyslop, the CTO of Boeing, was the plenary speaker. His last slide was a futuristic looking vehicle that Boeing is working on, which is a Mach 5 vehicle.

He feels that with new research in propulsion systems, new material development, new production methods and new advances in computational aerosciences the time is right for us to develop and certify a vehicle that can attain Mach 5 for commercial transport. This is a great opportunity for our department because we have the needed expertise in materials, structures, propulsion, aerodynamics and computation that could have an impact on the development of a hypersonic commercial transport vehicle.

And how about the space side of things?

In the last century, starting about 100 years ago, the privatization of air travel by Bill Boeing, Curtiss and Douglas led to very rapid progress in making air travel affordable to move cargo and people. Before that, aviation was government-funded and military-oriented.

Now if you dial the clock forward 100 years, we see Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Paul Allen. They own Blue Origin, SpaceX and Vulcan. And they’re getting into space exploration and space travel.

If I’m to extrapolate, that means we should see this century as one in which we will create a lot of technologies related to space. And so that’s another opportunity for our department, but we are not the only space engineers on campus.

Right across the road is the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, where they are doing space weather and space physics research, and where the Space Physics Research Laboratory (SPRL) is housed. The new directions in space technology present new opportunities for collaboration between our departments.

The curriculum is currently geared toward the conventional aerospace fields of structures and materials, dynamics and controls, and gas dynamics. How does it need to change?

Pursuing opportunities in autonomy, data science and space will require a shift from a more aeronautics-centric curriculum to a more balanced curriculum in both aeronautics and space. We must also embrace the advances in computer science and computational science and formalize the training of U-M Aero students who are interested in these areas.

I want to maintain and improve upon the strengths that we have in traditional aero disciplines such as fluid dynamics, lightweight structures and materials, propulsion and navigation guidance and controls. Those always will be regarded as core areas of aerospace engineering, and our leadership in these core areas is one of our major attractors.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t take advantage of collaborating with Climate and Space Sciences as well as Computer Science and Engineering on forward-looking coursework. And our faculty are warming up to that.

At this moment, aerospace departments around the country are tussling with the tension between maintaining a high standard of training in the conventional aerospace disciplines and opening up opportunities for students to pursue coursework that will prepare them to advance the field in new and emerging areas. We may no longer be able to think of our graduates as having a homogeneous skill set—instead, they will be armed with common competencies and differing areas of specialization. I think that is the path we must take.

Speaking of a diversity of skills, what are your plans around promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in the department?

Raising awareness is a very crucial aspect of addressing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It needs to begin with a conversation involving the whole department. The department has a new DEI committee that includes faculty, staff and students.

While we try to invite a diverse range of speakers to give lectures on aerospace topics, we haven’t brought in speakers who can speak of their research on diversity. To address this, our department will invite speakers to give public seminars about the changing landscape in society and how we can mirror it in our department.

Finally, we have come to understand that women and underrepresented minorities may be more likely to pursue an engineering degree when they can see the impact that their work could have on society. We will do more to communicate how aerospace engineering addresses societal technological challenges of the present and future.

Mobility is one concern. One of the tasks ahead is to engineer autonomous systems that move cargo and people. But autonomy can also play an important role in disaster response and relief. And there are a variety of such situations.

Fleets of autonomous aircraft could put out wildfires, keeping human pilots out of harm’s way. They could cover more ground searching for a missing person, and they could be deployed to areas too dangerous to send in human workers, delivering urgently needed supplies such as medicines. If we get certification and federal regulations approved, I think we can change the landscape of firefighting, rescue and disaster relief using pilotless vehicles. Furthermore, space exploration using robots is clearly a first step prior to manned missions.

Final thoughts?

U-M Aero was the first degree-granting program in aeronautics in the U.S., and I think that still means something. We have a responsibility to lead. But I’m just the chair. I need to rally students, faculty and staff to align with a common set of goals, in line with the College of Engineering and the University! We have all the ingredients here in Ann Arbor to create the future of aerospace engineering education, and I really look forward to piloting the U-M aerospaceship.

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  • Anthony Waas

    Anthony Waas

    Richard A Auhll Department Chair of Aerospace Engineering

BepiColombo approaching Mercury. Credit: European Space Agency

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