Engineer awarded $4.5M to develop AI-powered hypersonic guidance and navigation systems

By Emily Dieckman, College of Engineering


Roberto Furfaro

Roberto Furfaro, a professor of systems and industrial engineering at the University of Arizona, was awarded $4.5 million to lead the development of improved guidance, navigation and control systems for autonomous vehicles that operate at speeds of hypersonic.

Roberto Furfaro, a University of Arizona professor of systems and industrial engineering, was awarded $4.5 million to lead the development of improved guidance, navigation and control systems for autonomous vehicles operating at hypersonic speeds. The three-year proposed research is sponsored by the Joint Hypersonic Transition Office through the University Consortium for Applied Hypersonic (UCAH).

Hypersonic speed – at Mach 5 or higher – is speed that exceeds five times the speed of sound. As the United States works to develop hypersonic technologies, research in the field has never been more important.

“Many conventional systems are designed using linear theory, and are not designed to fly or intercept at that speed,” Furfaro said. “There are a lot of things going on in hypersonic flow that are very nonlinear that they don’t fully understand, and we need to recognize that if we want to design systems that work under these conditions.”

Consider how, when a car is moving at 80 mph, a one-second delay in driver decision-making can have catastrophic consequences. Hypersonic vehicles, which travel thousands of miles per hour and deal with additional factors such as shockwaves and extreme heat, have much less room for error.

UArizona is home to the Arizona Research Center for Hypersonics, where researchers conduct simulations and wind tunnel tests to learn more about how vehicles perform in extreme environments. The artificial intelligence-powered guidance, control and navigation methods developed by Furfaro and his team will serve as the “brains” of hypersonic vehicles – including interceptors, which are high-speed, maneuverable vehicles designed for in defense against enemy aircraft.

“This investment is a huge win for our developing hypersonic research program,” he said David W. Hahn, the Craig M. Berge Dean of the College of Engineering. “Roberto has a wide range of expertise in areas including space flight mechanics and machine learning, making him and his team uniquely qualified to lead this effort.”

To train hypersonic systems to navigate and react in highly complex, high-speed situations on their own, the team uses a type of machine learning called meta-reinforcement learning.

“With meta learning, we can train it not just on one scenario, but on multiple scenarios,” Furfaro said. “The system is able to learn in a distributed environment, and each time it integrates faster than the next.

A strong team builds a test environment

Alumnus of UArizona Brian Gaudet, research engineer at the university’s Space Systems Engineering Laboratory, plays a critical role in the development and implementation of AI systems. Other collaborators and co-investigators include aerospace and mechanical engineering professors Samy Missoum, who worked on work funded by the Department of Defense to characterize the hypersonic environment; and professor of materials science and engineering Erica Corralwho serves as co-director of industrial and national lab engagement and workforce development for UCAH’s Consortium Engagement Board.

Furfaro will also work with faculty members in aerospace and mechanical engineering Alex Craig and Jesse Littlewho worked on experimental aerodynamics, and Kyle Hanquist, an assistant professor in the same department specializing in computational fluid dynamics. Other collaborators are the University of Texas at Austin and Raytheon Missiles and Defense.

“The University of Arizona has a nationally renowned hypersonics research program, which received $10 million in federal and state support in 2021 to improve our research facilities,” said the President of the University of Arizona. Robert C. Robbins. “Many of the leading experts in the field agree that artificial intelligence will play an increasingly important role in the development of the field, and Professor Furfaro’s receipt of this highly competitive grant will bring together many areas of expertise to improve this critical area.”

The researchers used this data – collected from simulations and wind tunnel tests of how vehicles behave in hypersonic flow – to identify and create a simulated environment for training the system’s adaptive brain. .

“We are incredibly supportive of the University of Arizona’s work in developing hypersonic technologies and talent,” said Wes Kremer, president of Raytheon Missiles & Defense. “The advances that Professor Furfaro and his team will make in guidance, navigation and control systems will directly impact our nation’s ability to develop advanced hypersonic capabilities.”


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