Partnerships Improve Life On (and Above) Planet Earth

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Ask a citizen on the street what springs to mind at the mention of “NASA,” and you’re bound to hear about Mars landings, the International Space Station, and perhaps this year’s George Clooney-Sandra Bullock shuttle thriller, Gravity.

In its 55-year history, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has  been largely defined by that single word — space — and what it implies: the exploration of stars and planets, the search for intelligent life, and the deep desire to understand our universe and how it began.

NASA itself describes its mission and vision more broadly: “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.” In other words (and contrary to Captain Kirk), space is not our “final frontier.” It’s just one of many. In fact, NASA’s current research priorities represent a sharpened focus on what might be called our “first frontier” — achieving a greater understanding of what’s happening here on Earth.

Two recent NASA grants received by the University of Iowa College of Engineering illustrate the agency’s Earth-based scientific interests, as well as its desire to improve lives not just in the U.S., but around the world. The grants also reflect the college’s diverse research strengths and some surprising “only in Iowa” capabilities.

In June 2013, the University of Iowa and communities throughout Eastern and Central Iowa marked the fifth anniversary of the floods of 2008, which devastated the UI arts campus, much of downtown Cedar Rapids, and scores of other cities and towns across the Midwest.

While Iowans have long been wary of the weather, in 2008 they grew even warier of weather forecasts, when many rain and flood gauges failed to predict the severity of the coming deluge.

Increasing the accuracy of those predictions is the goal of several recent NASA grants to the Iowa Flood Center (IFC), under the leadership of IFC Director Witold Krajewski, the Rose & Joseph Summers Chair in Water Resources Engineering. Krajewski is a member of the science team charged with gathering research data in support of NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite mission, which will launch in early 2014.

GPM is expected to set a new standard for precipitation measurement from space, providing worldwide precipitation estimates every few hours.

Before GPM can do its job, however, scientists must ensure that what existing satellites are seeing from space actually matches what’s happening on the ground.

Thus was born IFC’s most recent NASA-funded project, the Iowa Flood Studies ground validation field campaign, or IFloodS.

From May 1 through June 15, 2013 — a fortuitously rainy six weeks — teams of UI researchers and other scientists cross-crossed the watershed basins of the Cedar, Iowa, and Turkey Rivers to gather data from a diverse network of ground instruments, from sophisticated NASA Polarimetric precipitation radar to rain gauges and soil moisture sensors.

“It’s not an easy problem to quantify rainfall from space,” says Krajewski. “One might assume that it would be most challenging to obtain accurate rainfall measurements in complex terrains like mountains or coastal areas. But it’s often more difficult for satellites to achieve accuracy on a smaller scale. In that regard, Iowa provided an ideal sample size. In addition, our watersheds are well-instrumented, and NASA values the expertise of the Iowa Flood Center and IIHR, which is recognized as one of the top hydrology research centers in the world.”

Krajewski adds that the UI team brought another unique asset to the IFloodS project. “We have four mobile radars that were acquired through a National Science Foundation grant to aid our hydrology studies,” he explains.

“No other institution has four mobile radars like this, and NASA was closely watching their performance during the IFloodS campaign.”

Iowa’s reputation in hydrology and GPM’s global mission drew scientists from 10 other research institutions to participate in the IFloodS project. “This was a great opportunity for colleagues at other institutions, including two in France and Switzerland, to send students here to see what’s going on,” Krajewski says. “It was a very active campaign, and we put them to work collecting data alongside UI team  members and our NASA partners.”

With the ground data-collection phase complete, Krajewski and his colleagues are now evaluating their findings, all of which will feed into the new GPM satellite’s ability to more accurately assess rainfall and, along with it, the potential for devastating floods. The state of Iowa will most certainly benefit from improved satellite data, Krajewski says, but the impact of the IFC-NASA partnership goes well beyond the Midwest.

“These missions are especially meaningful for areas of the U.S. and other parts of the globe that don’t have Iowa’s well-developed network of ground-based radar and other instrumentation,” he observes.

In that way, the mission of the Iowa Flood Center has become truly global in scope, complementing NASA’s own vision of benefitting all humankind

Another UI-NASA partnership with global implications involves Associate Professor Thomas Schnell, whose recent $1.2 million, three-year NASA grant is aimed at making air travel safer. The UI’s Operator Performance Laboratory (OPL) in the Center for Computer-Aided Design is the study’s lead organization, with Rockwell Collins and the Boeing Company serving as subcontractors. The grant seeks to develop ways to help aircraft crews avoid the dangers of spatial disorientation and loss of energy state awareness; that is, maintaining awareness of an aircraft’s three main sources of energy — speed, altitude, and fuel.

Advanced autopilot systems in commercial airliners have greatly improved air travel safety, explains Schnell, OPL director and project principal investigator.

However, those same systems can dull a pilot’s senses. “By the time the flight deck crew notices the problem, it may be too late to fix,” he says.

That’s what appears to have happened in the June 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, which killed 228 people when it plunged into the Atlantic Ocean en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. In its final report on the cause of the crash, France’s Bureau of Investigation and Analysis cited pilot error and a failure to respond effectively to problems with the plane’s speed sensors or to correct the plane’s trajectory after the autopilot disconnected.

Schnell says the UI’s approach to understanding and preventing these hazardous situations is unique.

“Our program is the only one of its kind to employ in-flight testing, rather than simulation alone, to assess pilot performance,” Schnell explains. Using the UI’s two L-29 jet trainers — two-seater jet aircraft that have been outfitted with sophisticated testing instrumentation – Schnell and other OPL staff pilots will serve as co-pilots for commercial airline pilots who’ve been recruited to participate in the research project.

“In-flight testing yields much more realistic and valuable data,” Schnell says. “For example, when the instructor surprises the pilot-subject with sudden variations in attitude, the pilot is going to feel as much as eight Gs of pressure, when simulators can only deliver one or two Gs. Such real-world conditions enable us to obtain more accurate biometric data, using sensors to measure factors such as heart rate, blood pressure, and where the pilot’s eyes are focused before and during these variations in energy state.”

Besides considering technological improvements, the UI study is looking at the impact of cultural norms and human behavior on flight deck performance.

Schnell, who also holds joint appointments as associate professor in the UI departments of Occupational and Environmental Health, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Neurology, and conducts human factors research in the UI Public Policy Center, cites hierarchical co-pilot relationships as one example.

“If a junior pilot has been conditioned not to question the decisions, observations, or authority of a senior pilot, the results could be disastrous, particularly when corrective actions must be taken very quickly.”

Schell is also concerned that some commercial pilots have been trained on a single type of plane, reducing their ability to anticipate and respond to hazardous situations when piloting unfamiliar aircraft.

Although the UI-NASA study is just getting under way, Schnell predicts that one recommended flight-deck improvement will be the use of Synthetic Vision Systems (SVS) in all commercial aircraft. These systems provide pilots with real-time, 3D imagery of the view outside the aircraft — an invaluable tool during limited forward-visibility situations such as darkness, fog, and thick clouds.

SVS screens look very much like the landscapes in today’s most popular video games. Instead of “virtual” reality, however, SVS screens give pilots an accurate, visual representation of their real-time location, thereby increasing pilots’ ability to safeguard the lives of their passengers, whether they’re flying above Iowa or around the globe.