Academic Provides Another Viewpoint
Academia and NASA benefit from cooperative work in research efforts such as those fostered by the Innovative Partnerships Program.
Dennis Bernstein of the University of Michigan aerospace engineering department and editor-in-chief of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE, Control Systems magazine provided insight into some of the benefits of these research agreements to X-Press editor Jay Levine.
Bernstein, who has a doctorate degree in control engineering, is partnering with Dryden researcher Sunil Kukreja on the 2008 IPP Seed Fund proposal to develop a way to monitor the health of composite-material airframes. It is an effort that could lead to safer flight and, perhaps in the future, slightly cheaper fares.
What are the mutual benefits of the cooperative work on this project between NASA and the university?
For this IPP Seed Fund project, my research group benefits from the guidance of NASA personnel on which technology issues are the most important. My NASA partners have direct knowledge from a scientific and engineering perspective about which research challenges are the most critical and will likely have the highest relevance and payoff.
From the NASA perspective, universities can investigate basic research issues that may have a long lead time and low probability of success but, if successful, will have huge payoff. For example, my group is working with NASA Dryden researcher Sunil Kukreja to develop a new technique for passive health monitoring, where the word “passive” refers to the fact that we don’t attempt to excite the structure but rather just use sensors to monitor its behavior.
The idea is to extract information about the health of a structure (such as a composite aircraft wing) by observing its response to ambient disturbances. By collecting and processing information, our goal is to analyze the health of the structure by detecting how it changes over time. If this approach is successful, then it will facilitate practical, low-cost, online health monitoring for a wide range of applications.
To do this, we follow a development process involving mathematical analysis, algorithm development, numerical simulation and, finally, demonstration and validation on data sets. It takes time and patience to carry out this process, but the payoff in the end is hopefully of real value to NASA and industry in general. It’s virtually impossible to follow through on this process without a NASA collaborator.
What do these agreements mean for students interested in these kinds of investigations?
Students have a chance to work on technology that has the potential to be used on real applications. In addition, students are motivated by the opportunity to interact with NASA researchers. We always want to do our best to deliver high-quality work, and having an ongoing, two-way interaction with NASA personnel such as [Kukreja] provides tremendous motivation. Through ongoing communication, we also have the chance to discuss technical issues, seek advice and benefit from readily available guidance.
What benefit do you see for the University of Michigan?
The College of Engineering at the University of Michigan encourages the faculty to link new research ideas to real-world applications. Basic research remains essential, but our “charge” is to develop new ideas and techniques that can make a real impact on real-world problems, such as economic, societal, environmental, etc. Having this collaboration with NASA gives us the motivation and means to develop and transition the research that we work on.
What other insights do you have on this project?
There are three essential ingredients for doing good research; namely, one, having a good problem for motivating the research, two, having innovative and promising ideas for solving the problem, and, three, having the means to carry out the ideas. This collaboration with [Kukreja] has already impacted all of these ingredients. As the project progresses, guidance from NASA personnel will be increasingly valuable.