UC AI: We See an Ally in the Sky

By:     Ashley Duvelius
Date:  September 8, 2017

It would seem that some sci-fi movies set in the future weren’t too far off base when depicting AI as your next flight’s co-pilot. Owen Macmann, University of Cincinnati College of Engineering and Applied Science PhD student, is conducting this cutting-edge fuzzy logic research and further cultivating strategic international collaborations at the University of Bordeaux as the recent recipient of the prestigious Erasmus + International grant.

Macmann holding his award for Best Presentation from the Dayton-Cincinnati Aerospace Sciences Symposium in 2015.

Macmann holding his award for Best Presentation from the Dayton-Cincinnati Aerospace Sciences Symposium in 2015.

Through the Erasmus+ International Credit Mobility Program, University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) aerospace engineering PhD student, Owen Macmann, is spending six months at our partner institution, the University of Bordeaux (UBx), working to bridge the gap between increasingly sophisticated aircraft systems, intelligent controls and human pilots. Macmann hopes to also build a virtual reality simulation to test human pilot-AI interaction, while facilitating the establishment of a joint laboratory between UC CEAS and UBx.

Macmann’s research centers on intelligent controls using fuzzy logic, which is programming artificial intelligence (AI) to think and solve problems in the same way that humans do. Fuzzy logic is a beneficial application to many industries, especially for the commercial and military airline/jet sectors.

Macmann explains, “As aircraft systems become increasingly complex and sophisticated, we must make sure they do not outpace the pilot's ability to understand and control them. Therefore, we seek AI facilitators to channel that information in useful ways, or help execute tasks that the pilot shouldn't be concerned with.”

Macmann believes fuzzy logic can be paired with human practicality (the human-machine interface) to create "supervisory" controllers, in which AI machines will act as supervisors/co-pilots within the cockpit of an engine or aircraft, informing and advising the human pilot about control functions. Macmann describes, “Think of JARVIS, from the popular movie Iron Man: whenever Tony Stark's suit takes damage, his AI co-pilot readily appraises the damage and provides Mr. Stark with an actionable indicator.”

Macmann believes that virtual reality is an excellent candidate to build up these human-machine/AI interfaces. He says, “Our partners in Bordeaux are in possession of a state-of-the-art simulation lab, where we can bridge between computer simulations of jet engines and aircraft performance to the human pilot's perception of the control environment.” The control environment is arcane and difficult to understand, and aircraft cockpits are renowned for being stuffed with dozens of gauges, dials, knobs, and switches. Macmann hopes that AI co-pilot/autopilots could help manage such complex airline operations and perhaps even respond to any harrowing mid-flight, cockpit crises.

The collaboration with the University of Bordeaux is not the first international experience Macmann has taken part in. He taught statistics and embedded systems for 4 months in Chongqing, China, via the UC Joint Co-op Institute, in collaboration with the University of Chongqing. He also completed undergraduate co-op rotations with a Tokyo-based aeroengine manufacturer and developer called IHI Corporation. At IHI, Macmann modeled jet engines and simulated their performance, which he states introduced him to simulations as well as demonstrated the practical responsibilities of engineers.

Previously, Macmann has won fellowship funding from the Air Force Research Laboratory through the Dayton Area Graduate Studies Institute for three years, from 2014 to present. He received the Dayton-Cincinnati Aerospace Sciences Symposium Best Presentation award in 2015 and was a two-time awardee of the Ohio Space Grant Consortium as an undergraduate.

Macmann reflects, “I’m excited to work in Bordeaux’s cutting-edge lab, we hope it will be a good fit for our AI-simulation ambitions. Additionally, I hope to pave the way for our colleagues and ensure that the Cincinnati-Bordeaux relationship starts off strong.”