A flying start
From the sea to the sky, Associate Professor Tristan Perez is working with the Australian Department of Defence and leading companies like Boeing Research and Technology Australia to research and develop ground-breaking strategies for guidance, navigation, and motion control for a flock of next generation Intelligent Autonomous Vehicles (IAV).
Within the next 10 years we will see an increase in unmanned vehicles sharing spaces with piloted vehicles, according to the vehicle-motion-control expert and leader of the Mechatronics program at the University of Newcastle's School of Engineering.
"New technology is upon us but with it comes new challenges. Before the full potential of IAVs can be realised in civilian applications we have to find the best way to integrate these vehicles safely into operational spaces shared with piloted vehicles," A/Prof Perez said.
"IAVs need to demonstrate levels of reliability and safety that are compatible with current aviation, land and maritime standards. As the level of autonomy increases and the decision making transitions to the machine, we need to be able to assess its performance and safety and compare them to that of piloted vehicles," he said.
"Testing decision making is not an easy task since rational decisions made under uncertainty may not always lead to satisfactory outcomes. Also, uncertainty at the time of making a decision may result in poor decisions leading to satisfactory outcomes—a bit of luck." he said.
Safer skies on the horizon
Working from design of autonomy to safety regulations, the Argentinian-born engineer's expertise has been called on by Boeing Research and Technology to help co-develop a first-of-its-kind framework to assess the safety of IAVs.
The global IAV market is expected to be worth close to $50 billion within the next decade. With applications ranging from border patrol to rapid emergency response, search and rescue, agricultural work, traffic and digital mapping, the potential is immense.
For defence, IAVs will be key players in the development of network-centric warfare capabilities plus situational awareness and automation of the battle space. As Perez explains, the most important advantage that IAVs have is removing risk to military personnel and increase effectiveness.
"Defence IAVs often operate in dangerous areas. By removing the pilot, you remove most of the risk. This is not so, however, within the civilian environment, and introducing varying levels of autonomous functionality brings challenges that alter the current safety frameworks for certification," A/Prof Perez said.
"When it comes to current aviation standards there is a range of factors tested to determine whether an operation is deemed safe or not, which includes testing the 'hardware' and the 'liveware'.
"For 'hardware', we have the air worthiness certification of the aircraft. For the 'liveware', we test the health, mental acumen, robustness and fitness of the pilots through training, certification and continuous assessments.
"But how do we test a machine for the ability to adapt to an unforseen situation? This is the challenge the University of Newcastle, Boeing and RMIT are working on together - developing a system that uses computer simulations and scenarios to assess the decision-making capabilities of the autonomous agent making decisions on a vehicle regarding guidance, communication, navigation, and motion control."
This framework has a tremendous potential to help make it easier for regulatory agencies around the world, such as the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the USA, to determine whether IAVs should be introduced in shared spaces for particular operations.
Uniquely positioned as an academic leader of the Defence Research Cluster at the University of Newcastle, A/Prof. Perez has led a number of world-firsts in engineering and is renowned globally for his expertise in optimising vehicle guidance and motion control systems for marine operations.
One first included proposing the application of constrained predictive control to the problem of ship rudder roll stabilisation of surface ships. He has also contributed to development of industry solutions for ship dynamic positioning, ride control, and rapid model prototyping for offshore training simulators.
A/Prof Perez's current work focuses on IAV aspects related to both marine and aerospace applications. This work is conducted in collaboration with the Australian Department of Defence, Boeing, UQ, RMIT, and the Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Marine Operations and Systems (AMOS) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology - NTNU.
At the other end of IAV development, A/Prof. Perez is utilising a cross-discipline approach fostered by the University of Newcastle and is entering the next stage of research working with psychologists and communication experts to determine how humans make decisions and how that can be applied to IAVs.
"Most IAVs are currently operated remotely with a pilot in charge of decision-making. What we are seeing is an increase in the levels of autonomy, with the vehicle making part of the decisions in terms of the mission, guidance, communications and motion control," A/Prof. Perez said.
"Situations like faults and failures arise and IAVs must be capable of making snap decisions. We're working with other leading researchers to determine how our brains do that. The questions being raised are also about how do we determine if it was the right decision? Can the right decision sometimes be made with the information available, even if it lead to the wrong outcome?"
The birds and the bees
In collaboration with Boeing Research and Technology Australia and the University of Queensland's Brain Institute (UQ), A/Prof. Perez is working on a $1.3million project analysing how birds avoid impending collisions and applying these behaviour to develop practical guidance algorithms to IAVs.
"Ironically, it's going back to the beginnings of flight – we are literally studying the birds and bees," A/Prof Perez said.
"Mid-air collisions are becoming increasingly likely due to the rapid increase of airspace complexity. Existing technologies for 'sense and avoid' collisions are bulky, expensive, and are not 100 per cent reliable," he said.
"We have been studying what features and sensors nature's best flyers are optimising. For instance, bees have a particular visual sensor that makes whatever moves fast appear close and whatever moves slowly appear far away – this is called parallax. So whatever trajectories the bees follow in space are related to that sensor and we can use that in terms of guidance of vehicles.
"Birds seldom collide with each other and other objects, despite the high speeds at which they fly in complex environments. This study will examine how birds use sensory information, make decisions, and perform manoeuvres."
The team will track the motion of Australian native budgerigars which have high-cruising speeds of about 35km/h, using high-speed cameras in a specially-designed tunnel at UQ.
Recent concern about reliability of GPS has also led to A/Prof Perez and other mechatronics researchers from UON working with Boeing and UQ to develop navigation systems that allow aircraft to operate in cases where GPS is compromised.
With a number of projects on the horizon merging the best of nature, humans and technology, A/Prof. Perez is a driving force in IAVs taking full flight this decade.