UIUC researcher leads flying taxi research effort with a $6M NASA grant


By Bill Bowman

Fans of the 1997 film “The Fifth Element” were undoubtedly drawn to the gravity-defying cars filling the screen, especially the Bruce Willis character’s air taxi. Thanks to a $6-million NASA grant, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign mechanical science and engineering (MechSE) professor Naira Hovakimyan leads the way toward making these flying cabs a reality. And passengers won’t even need a driver.

As part of NASA’s University Leadership Initiative (ULI), Hovakimyan’s project has established the Center for Autonomous Vehicles in Air Transportation Engineering (AVIATE) in the MechSE department. It is one of just four ULI’s awarded in 2022. Hovakimyan, also serving as the new center’s director, says, “The primary goal for air taxis is, once the infrastructure is there and the vehicles are there to operate, you should be able to live in Urbana-Champaign in your affordable house, work in Ohio, and have your dinner in Chicago.”

This technology is advancing rapidly and may be able to side-step or rise above many of the challenges faced by self-driving cars. “Ideally, you can take off from your backyard because it’s a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle,” Hovakimyan says. “In Chicago, where there are no backyards downtown, you would land on the top of skyscrapers. It can come sooner than a self-driving car on the road. On the road, you have pedestrians, other vehicles, and much more unpredictability.”

For years, Hovakimyan’s L1 adaptive flight control system has provided maneuverability and safety in airplanes, vastly outperforming human pilots in challenging conditions. This technology is key to making small autonomous aircraft a trustworthy mode of transportation. “This ULI envisions building on Naira Hovakimyan’s flight-proven L1 adaptive control technology by adding learning and stochastic control enabled components developed through her collaboration with Evangelos Theodorou  of Georgia Tech,” says Irene Gregory, the NASA Technical Monitor of the ULI. “The vision is to mature this technology for rapidly emerging urban air vehicles, and safe increasingly autonomous flight, by enabling real-time V&V through collaborations with Sayan Mitra  of UIUC and Chuchu Fan  of MIT.”

In addition to UIUC, MIT, and Georgia Tech, the team members include North Carolina A&T and the University of Nevada at Reno. Lockheed Martin  and Sierra Nevada Corporation  are also involved on the corporate side. The advisory board includes Boeing, Google Wing and Kitty Hawk. 

“By incorporating the safety of the Simplex architecture of Lui Sha (UIUC) and enabling robust perception with Bo Li ’s (UIUC) help, the technology will be ready for autonomous flight testing by Petros Voulgaris and Christos Papachristos at UNR using FAA-approved flight test site of the State of Nevada,” Gregory said. “The fault detection and reliability analysis will be ensured by Melkior Ornik  of UIUC and Ali Karimoddini  and Ioannis Raptis  of NCAT, a minority-serving institution, thus expanding NASA’s outreach to broader communities. Vasu Salapaka (UIUC) will lead the efforts for integration into the national airspace. The collaborations with Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada Corporation will ensure technology transition efforts, as evidenced by current Lockheed Martin’s attempt to flight test the L1 adaptive controller on their systems. Ultimately, the team envisions to grow these efforts to establish a university center of autonomy for urban air vehicles.”

The ULI initiative gives the academic community an opportunity to support NASA’s aeronautical research goals and provides students with valuable experience in solving real-world technical challenges. Another key ULI goal is for students to gain experience in multidisciplinary teams from other universities and industries, including underrepresented student populations or those who have not applied their skills to aviation problems. During the summer of 2022, all four ULI teams will have the opportunity to brief congressional staff on their research topics, approach, expectations and progress.

Flying cars have long captured the imagination of Earth-bound humans, from observing birds with envy millennia ago to more modern times watching “The Jetsons” on television or “Blade Runner” on the big screen. AVIATE researchers may make these notions a reality sooner than expected, resulting in many practical benefits and more mind-blowing aspects. “It makes the world smaller if you can move faster. That is the whole idea,” Hovakimyan says.