Whether it’s studying the logistics of drones, using satellite imagery or the power of big data, UNT researchers through the support of NASA are making innovative discoveries that are out of this world.
TEXT: JESSICA DELEON
In an emergency, every minute is critical and could mean the difference between life or death. Flying an unmanned air ambulance along predefined “air routes” could get help to an accident scene more quickly after a 9-1-1 call. Those same “air routes” could connect various hospitals, drastically speeding up delivery times for donated organs and human tissue needed for life-saving transplants.
This vision of “air routes” — creating set paths in the airspace for drones to fly from point to point — would be like “highways in the sky,” says Kamesh Namuduri, UNT professor of electrical engineering. It’s not a reality yet, but that vision from Namuduri and other researchers in UNT’s Center for Integrated Intelligent Mobility Systems (CIIMS) got one step closer to reality on a bright day this past October.
A surrogate electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft, accompanied by a Bell 407GXi helicopter, took off from CIIMS partner Hillwood’s AllianceTexas Flight Test Center in Justin and flew to UNT’s Discovery Park in Denton. Namuduri and other researchers monitored the test flight, using their radios and tablets to stay connected.
The project moved researchers closer to a high-demand air route for unmanned, autonomous cargo- and passenger- carrying air transport. As part of the Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign Project, the exercise involved the work of 15 entities including NASA as well as Bell Textron, Unmanned Experts Inc., AAMTEX, Hillwood and the Federal Aviation Administration.
“CIIMS works with all 15 partners very closely,” Namuduri says. “The highways in the sky help move people and cargo much faster, thus contributing to local and regional economic growth as well as preparing the future workforce through education and training.”
Read more about UNT’s Center for Integrated Intelligent Mobility Systems.
But it’s not the only project that UNT researchers are conducting with NASA, one of the nation’s most prestigious government agencies. From examining satellite and aerial images aimed at improving farmers’ irrigation techniques to using shape memory alloy technology to make aircraft fly faster, researchers are using NASA’s many tools and funding — and putting UNT, a Tier One public research university on the rise, on the map for its interdisciplinary, forward-thinking approaches — to create innovative projects that could transform lives.
Namuduri, who first learned about the Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign at a conference in 2020, is excited for the prospects for these “highways in the sky.”
“In the future, we are going to see a lot of vehicles. And if we are guaranteeing the safety and security of people and infrastructure, then we are going to see a lot of scaling up, thousands of vehicles are going to fly,” says Namuduri. “We are the pioneers in this new technology and are seeking to make this vision a safer, better future reality for all of us.”
Those two years of work preparing for the simulation involved detailed planning and research to make sure the systems were working, which included technologies such as future airspace system automation and advanced communications infrastructure. The sprints were scripted and well-planned ahead of time by the UNT team and their partners to make sure the traffic management system was working properly.
The researchers had to consider what issues and challenges the unmanned aircraft may encounter — such as regulations, safety and how to handle weather. They even simulated a rainstorm during its second test run. They also needed to determine how drones “talk” to each other, such as giving the right of way at an intersection.
The simulation provided vital data for industry standards in airspace management, vehicle-to-infrastructure communication and autonomous flight operations, as well as expanded on earlier NASA-led research to include the integration of live weather data and dynamic capacity balancing into a complex hardware and software solution needed to realize the next generation of airborne travel.
“The test moves the North Texas region one step closer to a future where air taxis, air ambulances and delivery vehicles are a normal part of life,” Namuduri says.
His work is part of CIIMS, in which faculty in various disciplines — from business to engineering — have collaborated and brought their expertise together around intelligent mobility since its founding in 2020.
Namuduri, who has eight active grants and has received research grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA and U.S. Air Force, is principal investigator on another project — funded with a three-year $746,000 grant from NASA — that will explore the supply chain logistics of high-volume manufacturing, such as the gaps that need to be addressed to be able to build drones.
The research also involves faculty members Terry Pohlen and Ila Manuj from the G. Brint Ryan College of Business and Nandika D’Souza from the College of Engineering. They are creating processes for commercialization of unmanned aircraft systems and components. The research received additional funding from the U.S. Air Force and North Central Texas Council of Governments.
“What we’re doing here at UNT is at the very forefront of the transformation in transportation,” Pohlen says. “With advanced air mobility combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning, we are going to open up a tremendous amount of opportunities and new applications that we haven’t even dreamed of.”
Marcus Young, associate professor of materials science and engineering, also has his eye on the sky. He used his skills in shape memory alloys — those that can be deformed when cold but return to their pre-deformed “remembered” shape when heated — for a future hypersonic aircraft for NASA.
Young served as part of its University Leadership Initiative, a group of university researchers and industry partners. Team members characterized and processed materials to make torque tubes that extend and contract based on electrical heat and result in shape morphing of the airplane’s body. This shape morphing reduces the loudness of the airplane as it travels at hypersonic speeds, since people often complain when it’s 75 decibels or above. Unsurprisingly, the measure of this unit is also known as the “noise annoyance level.”
“If we want to fly fast through residential areas, we need aircraft to be quiet,” Young says.
The alloys make the flight more efficient as well. The researchers shaped the panel so it can change from concave to convex and it breaks up the airflow which can be tuned to reduce the noise. His group made new alloys, from which he created wires and tubes that are significantly lighter and smaller.
“In doing so, manufacturers can put them in smaller places within the aircraft body that wouldn’t have been possible before,” he says.
The team was the first to make a high temperature version of shape memory alloy wire, which has a fatigue lifetime of over 20,000 cycles, meaning it has a longer service time before needing to be replaced. This goal is important for opening the door to many more applications in industries including and beyond aerospace. They’ve set a goal to extend that to 100,000 cycles.
Shape memory alloys offer functions here on Earth. The Jaguar car has used shape memory alloy on the side of its autos so it’s faster and more efficient. Cell phones and cars use the alloys for their antennae. And alloys are used in mechanisms to heat or cool car seats as well.
“They end up making their way into things that people often use but wouldn’t think about,” Young says.
Young’s work with metals has varied from his career as a scientist who bends metals to fit the needs for manufacturers and other institutions to his role as an artist who makes sculptures. He has worked with fellow UNT researchers to use shape memory alloy technology for making bulletproof protection material for the U.S. Army and improving superconductive wires. He used a dual beam ultra-high resolution field emission scanning electron microscope to research the processing and manufacturing techniques such as what base metals were used and details on grain size and plating behind the alterations of a 500-year-old painting for the Dallas Museum of Art.
He won the Visiting Scholar Program Award at Chemnitz University of Technology, where he was a visiting researcher in 2022, and he won the College of Engineering’s PACCAR Distinguished Faculty Fellow Award in 2020.
Young’s membership in the Consortium for the Advancement of Shape Memory Alloy Research and Technology (CASMART) has paved the way in his career. He joined the group when he was a graduate student at Northwestern University and a research metallurgist with ATI, a company that creates specialty alloys. He continued his membership when he joined UNT in 2012 and has brought UNT students with him for its conferences and competitions.
But the ULI project with NASA was unique. Officials at the agency provided guidance and helped the group focus on aspects important to NASA based on feedback from annual reviews.
“It was nice to see the big picture of implementing a new device into an aircraft,”Youngsays.“The large team with many different disciplines interacting was helpful to understand the role of the material within this context. Seeing a final shape memory alloy device, which we created as a team, morphing its shape to simulated changing weather conditions in real time was one of the highlights of the five-year program.”
But the work for NASA isn’t always limited to the sky. Back on the ground, the crops in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley are constantly changing the environment. Some methods to measure the changes — such as flux towers collecting data on water vapor and carbon dioxide exchange rates between the Earth and atmosphere, and a census of water assessing its supply and use — may not always be accurate.
“But satellite photos can tell a story,” says Lu Liang, associate professor of geography and the environment, adding that satellite and aerial images cover a broader landscape and allow researchers to see how the sun lies on the fields.
Of the freshwater consumed in the world annually, 70% is used for agricultural irrigation. However, 40% of water used by farmers is wasted through evaporation as well as poor irrigation and water management.
Liang and Xiaohui Yuan, associate professor of computer science and engineering, are examining high-quality satellite and aerial images to see what irrigation techniques farmers in that region are using and to determine how techniques have been changed to accurately assess water use efficiency on farmlands.
They have received $650,000 in grants from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey and UNT (as a seed grant). In addition, they have earned other honors. Liang is a 2021-22 Early Career Professorship Award winner for her transformative research. Yuan was an Air Force Summer Faculty Fellow, Air Force Office of Scientific Research from 2012 to 2013.
The researchers take the images with each pixel representing one square meter and divide them into small square patches. Using their skill sets and artificial intelligence for model generation and processing, they can annotate those patterns on the imagery.
“There are a lot of things NASA does besides looking outside to space — they also look back toward the Earth for discovery,” Yuan says.
For the astronauts who are traveling in space — specifically to the moon — Huseyin Bostanci, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and his students want astronauts to have healthy air.
They’re creating solutions for the Artemis mission, which is expected to launch with humans in 2025 as part of the 2022-23 Moon to Mars eXploration Systems and Habitation (M2M X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge, sponsored by NASA and the National Space Grant Foundation.
The team from UNT — one of only six universities selected for the program — is trying to find alternative technologies for removing carbon dioxide from cabin air since the current technology has reliability issues and requires maintenance. Deep space missions, such as trips to Mars, will require months of travel, so the team is working on a prototype system to demonstrate efficient and reliable air revitalization, and enable astronauts to breathe as normally as possible.
“Separation of liquid and gas phases plays a critical role in air revitalization technologies, but it’s very challenging in microgravity conditions,” Bostanci says.
The project, titled “Regenerable Liquid Desiccants for High-Efficiency Humidity Control in Microgravity,” received $50,000 and Bostanci, who has participated in related projects since 2019, has received $340,000 so far in grants from NASA. He also received the New Investigator Award from the NASA Texas Space Grant Consortium in 2013.
He notes that he and the students get to work with NASA on developing innovative technologies and students are able to take part in internships and presentations.
“It is a great opportunity for them to collaborate with NASA,” he says.
For her collaboration with NASA and other researchers, Ruth West is harnessing big data about the planet.
West, professor and director of the xREZ Art + Science Lab in the College of Visual Arts and Design, is part of a team that is creating new approaches to help scientists identify, track and understand the evolution of multidimensional Earth science phenomena, such as wildfire smoke plumes movement throughout the atmosphere, through the GEOS Visualization And Lagrangian dynamics Immersive eXtended Reality (VALIXR) Tool for Scientific Discovery.
Thanks to a $102,000 grant from NASA, West and other researchers are working on the project with engineers and researchers at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, University of Maryland and University of Maryland Baltimore County.
The team will develop a scientific exploration analysis and mixed reality tool with integrated Lagrangian dynamics for the Goddard Earth Observing System numerical weather prediction model. Scientists will be able to see inside of the numerical models underlying the creation of simulations and Digital Twins — a term used to indicate the simulation of something in the real world but in virtual reality so that data updates the simulation continuously — to create new insights through the use of immersive technology.
West says the project will benefit NASA by creating the ability to track and understand the evolution of earth science and phenomena on very large scales.
“We live in an era when big data, machine learning and multidimensional simulation offer exciting opportunities to gain new insight into ourselves and our world,” West says. “The data and models are immense and getting larger by the day. New tools and approaches to allow us to gain insight from this data at increasingly larger resolutions in space and time are urgently needed.”
All of these projects require years of research about complicated challenges.
Read how alumni and students are using their UNT education to make their mark in their respective fields at NASA.
But the researchers also bring great passion to their work. Ohad Shemmer, associate professor of physics, was fascinated with the stars in the sky as a high school student in the late 1980s in his native Israel. Every night, he would keep track of how they varied in brightness over time and mail the information to the American Association of Variable Star Observers, which collected the data. He knew he was able to fill in gaps for a particular night or target, usually a star or sometimes an active galaxy, for a professional astronomer who missed that opportunity.
Now, he studies and measures the mass of black holes — and he’s made significant discoveries. In 2019, he was part of a team that found the most remote “cloaked” black hole, thanks to the help of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
“This really is my dream job,” he says. “It’s not only the observation at different wavelengths and frequencies or the study of physics that brings me joy — it’s the excitement of never-ending discoveries.”