Aerospace Engineering Graduate Student Receives NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

May 4, 2020
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photo of stefanie salingerStefanie Salinger, a graduate student pursuing M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in aerospace engineering at UT Austin, was selected to receive a 2020 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship. The fellowship will provide a $34,000 annual stipend over a three-year period along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees and opportunities for international research and professional development.

Salinger, who graduated from Bucknell University with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, will use the grant to support research on the evolution of a self-aware unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). According to Salinger, a self-aware UAV has the ability to collect information about itself and its surroundings and to uses this information to alter the way it completes missions via on-board dynamic decision-making.

“The hypothesis driving this work is that sensed structural data can be dynamically collected, filtered and processed to estimate the structural health of the UAV, update the flight capabilities and dynamically re-plan a mission,” Salinger said. “Such a system would be useful, for example, in scenarios in which the vehicle sustains damage to its wing that impedes its ability to operate at the initial design capacity.”

Salinger said that in the current phase of the project, there is a gap in the methodology for coupling developed computational methods with real sensor data from a hardware platform and adapting the methods to overcome the challenges this introduces.

“The goal of my research project is to close this gap between the design and implementation of an on-board sensor array and the approach to coupling that sensor data with computational models for vehicle dynamics and decision making,” Salinger said. “My objectives are to investigate sensor options and develop a sensor architecture, integrate the data acquisition system into the existing computational approaches, and flight test the integrated system to couple the data and algorithms.”  

photo of self aware unmanned aerial vehicle
This 12-foot wingspan, fixed-wing UAV was developed in collaboration with Aurora Flight Sciences to be used as the experimental testbed. The wings are custom-built with plywood ribs and a carbon fiber skin and are removable and interchangeable so they can be bench-top tested to collect structural sensor data for this research.

Since UT Austin has been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Salinger has been working from home using previously collected data. Salinger's faculty advisor, Karen Willcox, a professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics and the director of the Oden Institute of Computational Engineering and Sciences, brought the UAV wings and bench-top setup out of their lab and set them up in her garage in case the team needs to gain additional data during this time of working from home. 

If successful, Salinger’s research will result in the first demonstration of in-flight structural health monitoring using adaptive physics-based reduced models.