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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

AeroAstro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2005–2006 issue of AeroAstro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2006 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Compiled by William T.G. Litant from information provided by the laboratories and research centers

In November 2005, a Space Propulsion Lab team achieved “first plasma” in its Helicon Wave plasma generator, a device for research into advanced forms of space thrusters. The team included (from left) senior Adam Shabshelowitz; SSL head Professor Manuel Martinez-Sanchez; graduate students Nareg Sinenian, Joe Palaia, sophomore Zachary LaBry (rear); and Justin Pucci; and Helicon project director Dr. Oleg Batishchev. (William Litant photograph)


Aerospace Computational Design Laboratory

The Aerospace Computational Design Laboratory’s mission is to lead the advancement and application of computational engineering for aerospace system design and optimization. ACDL research addresses a comprehensive range of topics in advanced computational fluid dynamics, methods for uncertainty quantification and control, and simulation-based design techniques.

The use of advanced computational fluid dynamics for complex 3D configurations allows for significant reductions in time from geometry-to-solution. Specific research interests include aerodynamics, aeroacoustics, flow and process control, fluid structure Interactions, hypersonic flows, high-order methods, multi-level solution techniques, large eddy simulation, and scientific visualization.

Uncertainty quantification and control is aimed at improving the efficiency and reliability of simulation-based analysis. Research is focused on error estimation and adaptive methods as well as certification of computer simulations.

The creation of computational decision-aiding tools in support of the design process is the objective of a number of methodologies currently pursued in the lab. These include PDE-constrained optimization, real time simulation and optimization of systems governed by PDEs, multiscale optimization, model order reduction, geometry management, and fidelity management. ACDL is applying these methodologies to aircraft design and to the development of tools for assessing aviation environmental impact. ACDL faculty and staff include Jaime Peraire  (director), David Darmofal, Mark Drela, Robert Haimes, Ngoc Cuong Nguyen, Per-Olof Persson, and KarenWillcox.

Aerospace Controls Laboratory

The Aerospace Controls Laboratory is involved in research topics related to control design and synthesis for aircraft and spacecraft. Theoretical research is pursued in areas such as high-level decision making, estimation, navigation using GPS, robust control, optimal control, and model predictive control. Experimental and applied research is also a major part of ACL. The advanced unmanned aerial vehicle, rover, automobile, and satellite testbeds enable students to implement their algorithms in actual hardware and evaluate the proposed techniques. ACL faculty are professors Jonathan How and Steven Hall.

Complex Systems Research Laboratory

Increasing complexity and coupling as well as the introduction of new digital technology are introducing new challenges for engineering, operations, and sustainment. The Complex Systems Research Lab designs system modeling, analysis, and visualization theory and tools to assist in the design and operation of safer systems with greater capability. To accomplish these goals, the lab applies a system’s approach to engineering that includes building technical foundations and knowledge and integrating these with the organizational, political, and cultural aspects of system construction and operation.

While CSRL’s main emphasis is aerospace systems and applications, its research results are applicable to complex systems in such domains as transportation, energy, and health. Current research projects include accident modeling and design for safety, model-based system and software engineering, reusable, component-based system architectures, interactive visualization, human-centered system design, system diagnosis and fault tolerance, system sustainment, and organizational factors in engineering and project management.

CSRL faculty include Nancy Leveson (director), Charles Coleman, Mary Cummings, Wesley Harris, and Paul Lagace.

Gas Turbine Laboratory

The MIT Gas Turbine Laboratory is the largest university laboratory of its kind, focusing on all aspects of advanced propulsion systems and turbomachinery. GTL’s  mission is to advance the state-of-the-art in gas turbines for power and propulsion. Several unique experimental facilities include a blowdown turbine, a blowdown compressor, a shock tube for reacting flow heat transfer analysis, facilities for designing, fabricating and testing micro heat engines, and a range of one-of-a-kind experimental diagnostics. GTL also has unique computational and theoretical modeling capabilities in the areas of gas turbine fluid mechanics, aircraft noise, emissions, heat transfer and robust design. Three examples of the lab's work are the development of Smart Engines, in particular active control of turbomachine instabilities; the Microengine Project, which involves extensive collaboration with the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science-these are shirt-button sized high-power density gas turbine and rocket engines fabricated using silicon chip manufacturing technology; and the Silent Aircraft Initiative, an effort to dramatically reduce  aircraft noise with the goal to transform commercial air transportation.

GTL participates in research topics related to short, mid and long-term problems and interacts with almost all of the major gas turbine manufacturers. Research support also comes from several Army, Navy, and Air Force agencies as well as from different NASA research centers.

Alan Epstein is the director of the lab. GTL faculty and research staff include David Darmofal, Mark Drela, Fredric Ehrich, Yifang Gong, Edward Greitzer, Gerald Guenette , Stuart Jacobson, Jack Kerrebrock, Carol Livermore, Ali Merchant, Manuel Martinez-Sanchez, James Paduano, Zoltan Spakovszky, Choon Tan, Ian Waitz, and Karen Willcox.

Humans and Automation Laboratory

Research in the Humans and Automation Laboratory, Aero-Astro’s newest research laboratory, focuses on the multifaceted interactions of human and computer decision-making in complex socio-technical systems. With the explosion of automated technology, the need for humans as supervisors of complex automatic control systems has replaced the need for humans in direct manual control. A consequence of complex, highly- automated domains in which the human decision-maker is more on-the-loop than in-the-loop is that the level of required cognition has moved from that of well-rehearsed skill execution and rule following to higher, more abstract levels of knowledge synthesis, judgment, and reasoning.

Employing human-centered design principles to human supervisory control problems, and identifying ways in which humans and computers can leverage the strengths of the other to achieve superior decisions together is the central focus of HAL.

Current research projects include investigation of human understanding of complex optimization algorithms and visualization of cost (objective functions); collaborative human-computer decision making in time-pressured scenarios (for both individuals and teams), human supervisory control of multiple unmanned aerial vehicles, developing metrics for evaluating display complexity; the impact of multiple alarms on driver performance; and display design for autonomous formation flying.

In conjunction with Draper Laboratory, HAL has kicked- off the Lunar Access project. The objective of this program is to develop a baseline lunar landing system design to enable pinpoint “anywhere, anytime” landings. The long-term goal is to develop a lunar lander simulator to test the design. While Draper will concentrate on the guidance, navigation, and control problem, HAL will focus on the operator-in-the loop, designing the human-computer interface. Also, the project will conduct trade studies for including the human at different control points such as in the lander, from orbit, or remotely from Earth. Professors Dava Newman and Nicholas Roy will contribute to the lunar lander design effort.

HAL faculty include Mary L. Cummings (director), Nancy Leveson, Nicholas Roy, and Thomas Sheridan.

International Center for Air Transportation

The International Center for Air Transportation undertakes research and educational programs that discover and disseminate the knowledge and tools underlying a global air transportation industry driven by new technologies

Global information systems are central to the future operation of international air transportation. Modern information technology systems of interest to ICAT include: global communication and positioning; international air traffic management; scheduling, dispatch and maintenance support; vehicle management; passenger information and communication; and real-time vehicle diagnostics.

Airline operations are also undergoing major transformations. Airline management, airport security, air transportation economics, fleet scheduling, traffic flow management and airport facilities development, represent areas of great interest to the MIT faculty and are of vital importance to international air transportation. ICAT is a physical and intellectual home for these activities. ICAT, and its predecessors, the Aeronautical Systems Laboratory and Flight Transportation Laboratory, pioneered concepts in air traffic management and flight deck automation and displays that are now in common use.

ICAT faculty include R. John Hansman (director), Cynthia Barnhart, Peter Belobaba, and Amedeo Odoni.

Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems

The Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems is an interdepartmental research laboratory that began in 1939 as the Servomechanisms Laboratory, focused on guided missile control, radar, and flight trainer technology. Today, LIDS conducts theoretical studies in communication and control, and is committed to advancing the state of knowledge of technologically important areas such as atmospheric optical communications and multivariable robust control.

LIDS recently experienced significant growth. The laboratory moved to the Stata Center in April 2004, a dynamic new space that promotes increased interaction within the lab and with the larger community. Laboratory research volume is now more than $6.5 million, and the size of the faculty and student body has tripled in recent years. LIDS continues to host events, notably weekly colloquia that feature leading scholars from the laboratory’s research areas. The 10th annual LIDS Student Conference took place in January 2005, showcasing current student work and including keynote speakers. These, and other events reflect LIDS’ commitment to building a vibrant, interdisciplinary community.

In addition to a fulltime staff of faculty, support personnel, and graduate assistants, every year several scientists from around the globe visit LIDS to participate in its research program. Currently, 17 faculty members, 20 research staff members, and approximately 110 graduate students are associated with the laboratory.

Aero-Astro LIDS faculty are John Deyst, Daniel Hastings, Eytan Modiano, and Moe Win. The laboratory is directed by Vincent Chan.

Lean Aerospace Initiative

The Lean Aerospace Initiative is a continuously evolving learning and research community that brings together key aerospace stakeholders from industry, government, organized labor, and academia. A consortium-guided research program, headquartered in Aero-Astro, and working in close collaboration with the Sloan School of Management, LAI is managed under the auspices of the Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development, an MIT-wide interdisciplinary research center.

The Initiative was formally launched as the Lean Aircraft Initiative in 1993 when leaders from the U.S. Air Force, MIT, labor unions, and defense aerospace businesses forged a partnership to transform the U.S. aerospace industry, reinvigorate its workplace, and reinvest in America, using an overarching operational philosophy called “lean.”
LAI is now in its fifth and most important phase, having moved beyond the transformation of business units toward that of entire enterprises. This will be accomplished through research, and the development and promulgation of practices, tools, and knowledge that enable enterprises to effectively, efficiently, and reliably create value in a complex and rapidly changing environment. The stated mission of LAI in this fifth phase is to “enable focused and accelerated transformation of complex enterprises through the collaborative engagement of all stakeholders to develop and institutionalize principles, processes, behaviors and tools for enterprise excellence.” LAI accelerates lean deployment through identified best practices, shared communication, common goals, and strategic and implementation tools honed from collaborative experience. LAI also promotes cooperation at all levels and facets of an enterprise, and, in the process, eliminates traditional barriers to improving industry and government teamwork. 
The greatest benefits of lean are realized when the operating, technical, business, and administrative units of an aerospace entity all strive for across-the- board lean performance, thus transforming that entity into a total lean enterprise.

Aero-Astro LAI participants include Deborah Nightingale ( co-director), Earll Murman, Dan Hastings, Annalisa Weigel and Sheila Widnall. John Carroll (co-director) joins LAI from the Sloan School of Management. Warren Seering, and Joe Sussman represent the Engineering Systems Division. 

Man Vehicle Laboratory

The Man Vehicle Laboratory optimizes human-vehicle system safety and effectiveness by improving understanding of human physiological and cognitive capabilities, and developing appropriate countermeasures and evidence-based engineering design criteria. Research is interdisciplinary, and uses techniques from manual and supervisory control, signal processing, estimation, sensory-motor physiology, sensory and cognitive psychology, biomechanics, human factor engineering, artificial intelligence, and biostatistics. MVL has flown experiments on Space Shuttle Spacelab missions and parabolic flights, and has several flight experiments in development for the International Space Station. NASA, the National Space Biomedical Institute, and the FAA-sponsored ground-based research. Projects focus on advanced space suit design and dynamics of astronaut motion, adaptation to rotating artificial gravity environments, spatial disorientation and navigation, teleoperation, design of aircraft and spacecraft displays and controls and cockpit human factors. Annual MVL MIT Independent Activities Period activities include ski safety research, and an introductory course on Boeing 767 systems and automation.

MVL faculty include Charles Oman (director), Jeffrey Hoffman Dava Newman, and Laurence Young,. They also teach subjects in human factors engineering, space systems engineering, space policy, flight simulation, space physiology, aerospace biomedical and life support engineering, and the physiology of human spatial orientation.

The Partnership for AiR Transportation Noise and Emissions Reduction

The Partnership for AiR Transportation Noise and Emissions Reduction is an MIT-led FAA/NASA/Transport Canada-sponsored Center of Excellence. PARTNER's goal is to be a world-class research organization closely aligned with national and international needs. PARTNER leverages a broad range of stakeholder capabilities, thereby fostering breakthrough technological, operational, policy, and workforce advances for the betterment of mobility, economy, national security, and the environment. PARTNER represents the combined talents of 10 universities, three federal agencies, and 50 advisory board members spanning a range of interests from local government, to industry, to citizens' community groups. Industry participants include General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce, Snecma, Boeing, Airbus, Bell Helicopter, Cessna, Delta Airlines, UPS, Gulfstream, Lockheed-Martin, Sikorsky, the Air Transport Association, Aerospace Industries Association, Airports Council International, and other smaller organizations.

Among major PARTNER projects are a landmark aviation and environment report to the U.S. Congress; testing alternate descent patterns to reduce aircraft landing noise, fuel consumption, and pollutant emissions; and development of simulations to assess policies, technologies and operational options for enabling environmentally responsible and economically viable air transportation growth.

PARTNER is directed by Aero-Astro Professor Ian Waitz. Other MIT participants include professors Peter Belobaba, Edward Greitzer, Henry Jacoby (Sloan School of Management), Karen Polenske (Urban Studies and Planning), Jack Kerrebrock, Karen Willcox, and Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (Sloan School of Management), as well as many research engineers, post docs, and graduate students. 

Space Propulsion Laboratory

The Space Propulsion Laboratory, part of the Space Systems Lab, studies and develops systems for increasing performance and reducing costs of space propulsion. A major area of interest to the lab is electric propulsion in which electrical, rather than chemical energy propels spacecraft. The benefits are numerous and important, hence the reason electric propulsion systems are increasingly applied to communication satellites and scientific space missions. In the future, these efficient engines will allow exploration in more detail of the structure of the universe, increase the lifetime of commercial payloads, and look for signs of life in far away places. Areas of research include Hall thrusters; plasma plumes and their interaction with spacecraft; electrospray physics, mainly as it relates to propulsion; microfabrication of electrospray thruster arrays; Helicon and other radio frequency plasma devices; and space electrodynamic tethers. Manuel Martinez-Sanchez directs the SPL research group.

Space Systems Laboratory

The Space Systems Laboratory engages in cutting-edge research projects with the goal of directly contributing to the current and future exploration and development of space. SSL’s mission is to explore innovative concepts for integration of and into future space systems, and to train a generation of researchers and engineers conversant in this field. General areas include developing the technologies and systems analyses associated with small spacecraft, precision optical systems, International Space Station experiments, and planetary exploration. The laboratory encompasses expertise in systems architecting, dynamics and control, thermal analysis, space power and propulsion, microelectromechanical systems, and software development. Major activities in the SSL are the development of formation flight technology testbeds and involvement in the NASA Concept Evaluation and Refinement (CE&R) study with the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory. The first of these activities has produced SPHERES, which will be launched to the International Space Station, EMFF, a system that uses electromagnets instead of thrusters for spacecraft formation control, and SWARM, a new demonstration of modular, wireless spacecraft docking and assembly. The CE&R study is focused on synthesizing and analyzing architectural options for future manned and robotic exploration of the Earth-Moon-Mars system, as well as real options analysis for Earth-to-Orbit launch and assembly. In addition, the SSL is developing technologies for interferometric space-based telescopes, low cost star trackers and mappers, stereographic imaging systems and space nuclear power and propulsion.

SSL faculty and research staff include David Miller (director), Ray Sedwick (associate director), Edmund Kong, John Keesee, Olivier de Weck, Ed Crawley, Daniel Hastings, Annalisa Weigel, Manuel Martinez-Sanchez, Jon How, Paul Bauer, and Paul Wooster.

Technology Laboratory for Advanced Materials and Structures

An enthusiastic group of researchers constitute the Technology Laboratory for Advanced Materials and Structures. They work cooperatively to advance the knowledge base and understanding that will help facilitate and hasten the exploitation of advanced materials systems in, and the use of, various advanced structural applications.

The laboratory has recently broadened its interests from a strong historical background in composite materials and the name change from the Technology Laboratory for Advanced Composites reflects this. The research interests and ongoing work thus represent a diverse and growing set of areas and associations. Areas of interest include:

  • nano-engineered hybrid advanced composite design, fabrication, and testing
  • composite tubular structural and laminate failures
  • MEMS-scale mechanical energy harvesting modeling, design, and testing
  • durability testing of structural health monitoring systems
  • thermostructural design, manufacture, and testing of composite thin films and associated fundamental mechanical and microstructural characterization
  • continued efforts on addressing the roles of lengthscale in the failure of composite structures
  • further reengagement in the overall issues of the design of composite structures with a focus on failure and durability, particularly within the context of safety

In supporting this work, TELAMS has complete facilities for the fabrication of specimens such as coupons, shafts, stiffened panels, and pressurized cylinders, made of composites, active, and other materials. TELAMS testing capabilities include a battery of servohydraulic machines for cyclic and static testing, a unit for the catastrophic burst testing of pressure vessels, and an impact testing facility. TELAMS maintain capabilities for environmental conditioning, testing at low and high temperature, and in general and hostile environments. There are facilities for microscopic inspection, for high-fidelity characterization of MEMS structures and devices, and a laser vibrometer for mechanical and electrical testing of electromechanical materials and devices.

With its ongoing, linked and coordinated internal and external efforts, the laboratory has renewed its commitment to leadership in the advancement of the knowledge and capabilities of the composites and structures community through education of students, original research, and interactions with the community. There has been a broadening of this commitment consistent with the broadening of the interest areas in the laboratory. In these efforts, the laboratory and its members continue their extensive collaborations with industry, government organizations, other academic institutions, and other groups and faculty within the MIT.

TELAMS faculty include Paul A. Lagace (director), Brian L. Wardle, and visitor Antonio Miravete.

Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel

Since its opening in September 1938, The Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel has played a major role in the development of aerospace, civil engineering and architectural systems. In recent years, faculty research interests generated long-range studies of unsteady airfoil flow fields, jet engine inlet-vortex behavior, aeroelastic tests of unducted propeller fans, and panel methods for tunnel wall interaction effects. Industrial testing has ranged over auxiliary propulsion burner units, helicopter antenna pods, and in-flight trailing cables, as well as new concepts for roofing attachments, a variety of stationary and vehicle mounted ground antenna configurations, the aeroelastic dynamics of airport control tower configurations for the Federal Aviation Authority, and the less anticipated live tests in Olympic ski gear, astronauts’ space suits for tare evaluations related to underwater simulations of weightless space activity, racing bicycles, subway station entrances, and Olympic rowing shells for oarlock system drag comparisons.

In more than a half century of operations, Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel work has been recorded in several hundred theses and more than 1,000 technical reports.

WBWT faculty and staff include Mark Drela and Richard Perdichizzi.


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