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Traffic Solutions
Disruptions, such as weather or congestion, delay flights in the airspace over the United States. At NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., researchers are figuring out how to better manage all that traffic. During the course of three summers as a NASA intern, Heather Arneson researched air traffic flow management and developed software tools to help safely and effectively reduce delays. Arneson's work was also relevant to her pursuit of advanced degrees in aerospace engineering.

Heather Arneson next to a computer screen displaying air traffic patterns

Heather Arneson interned three summers at NASA's Ames Research Center. Image Credit: NASA/Dominic Hart

In which NASA student opportunity project did you participate, and how did you get involved in it?

I met my mentor, Michael Bloem, at a conference in December 2007. He had recently graduated with a master's degree (in electrical and computer engineering) from the University of Illinois and started researching air traffic management at NASA Ames Research Center. He was interested in the research that my advisor and I were doing in air traffic flow management. He let me know of an internship opportunity to work with him at NASA Ames over the summer. I applied and headed off to Ames in May, where I served as a student intern in the NASA Education Associates (Project).

Independently from this internship opportunity, I had applied for and was awarded a fellowship from the NASA Aeronautics Scholarship Program (administered by the American Society for Engineering Education). This fellowship included optional internships at a NASA research center. I chose to go back to NASA Ames (again, working with Michael Bloem) under this fellowship in the summers of 2009 and 2010.

Explain the research you conducted through your NASA involvement and why this topic is important.

The general topic of the research that I did during all three of my summer internships at NASA Ames was air traffic flow management. When airspace capacity is lowered as a result of weather conditions, air traffic through affected regions of airspace must often be delayed to prevent capacity from being exceeded. A major challenge of this problem is dealing with the uncertainty of weather predictions. Current operations depend on human air traffic controllers, familiar with a specific region of airspace and common weather patterns in that area, to control flow through these regions. In my work, I am developing control methods to more systematically deal with the uncertainty in weather forecasts.

In the summer of 2008 I developed a scheduling method for flow-constrained areas (regions of airspace with diminished capacity due to, e.g., convective weather) with uncertain capacity constraints. I learned about some of the issues that need to be taken into consideration when developing a scheduling method regarding integration with current procedures and practices.

My work in the summer of 2009 was focused on the development of software tools to implement traffic flow management control actions. These software tools interface with FACET, a National Airspace System simulator developed at NASA Ames. I continued this work in the summer of 2010 by implementing a control law developed by myself and my Ph.D. advisor. This software implementation allows us to realistically simulate and evaluate the performance of the control algorithms that we have developed.

What has been the most exciting part of your research?

Working on a problem with relevant real-world applications has been really exciting. In working on the air traffic flow management problem, I am able to get into some interesting theory, and I also get a chance to look into the details of implementing the theoretical results on the physical system. This greater understanding of the physical system helps guide my theoretical work.

What is your educational background and what are your future educational plans?

I earned a B.S. in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Cornell University in 2002. I then spent three years working on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission. I was a member of the Panoramic Camera (Pancam) team.

In 2005, I began grad school in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I received an M.S. degree in December 2007 and am currently working on my Ph.D. My focus is distributed control with applications to air traffic flow management.

What inspired you to choose the education/career field you did?

I've always loved math and science. I took every math class offered at my high school. I wasn't exactly sure what engineering was all about, but I chose to major in engineering in undergrad because I thought it would give me a chance to use math to design and build something physical.

When I got to Cornell, the class that most influenced and reinforced my education path as an undergraduate was the junior level course in system dynamics. This was the first course in which I could see how mathematical equations could be used to describe a system and then be used to determine how to control a system! And, I have been hooked on control ever since.

At the end of undergrad, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn't want to go to grad school, at least not right away. I had been working in the astronomy department as an undergraduate research assistant for Steve Squyres. Steve was the principal investigator for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project, and the rovers were in the development stage. I was on a small team of undergraduates who designed (following drawings provided by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and built (out of aluminum, wood, plastic, etc.) a full-scale rover model, which was used for education and outreach.

After graduation, I got a job with Jim Bell, another professor of astronomy at Cornell and the principal investigator of the Panoramic Cameras (Pancam) for MER. I ended up working on the Pancam team for the following three years. I helped out with camera calibration before launch. I did some software development to create tools that would be used in rover surface operations and went through training to be prepared for operations. I wrote commands to take images with the Pancams during the first 1 1/2 years of landed operations.

Although I was technically working on the science team, I did get to see a lot of the interaction between engineers on the team. I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to be the type of engineer that was making decisions about design, operations, etc., that I needed a graduate degree. This is one of the realizations that pushed me to go to grad school and get an M.S. degree.

What do you think will be the most important things you’ll take away from your involvement with NASA?

My summers at Ames have been a great introduction to working at a research lab. I've gotten to see how research is conducted at a NASA research center as compared to the university setting.

How do you think your NASA involvement will affect your future?

This experience has clarified my plans for my Ph.D. dissertation. I have worked on air traffic flow management problems for my M.S. thesis and have continued similar work for my Ph.D. dissertation. Through these internship experiences, I have gained a better understanding of some of the practical issues of air traffic flow management and have gotten constructive feedback on my summer projects from researchers at NASA Ames. I will use this experience to help direct my Ph.D. research.

What are your future career plans?

After completing my Ph.D., I'd like to work at a research lab (a NASA lab would be great!). I really enjoy doing research and would like to continue to be involved in research projects that are relevant and timely. I also like the university setting and teaching, and I may eventually want to teach.

What advice would you have for other students who are interested in becoming involved with, or working for, NASA?

My advice for all students, whatever they are interested in getting involved with in the future, is to do what you are excited about. Take classes that you are interested in and excited about, even if you don't see how you will put the tools that you learn in that class to use. Get involved in research projects that you are excited about. I think you'll find that following your passion will lead to opportunities that excite you, even if you hadn't planned that path from the beginning.

Related Resources
> NASA Education Associates Project
> NASA Aeronautics Scholarship Program   →
> NASA Ames Research Center
> NASA Mars Exploration Rover Mission
> NASA Chat: Cheating the Weather to Improve On-Time Arrivals

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services