CITRIS launches aviation research initiative

Collage of drone photos, including students flying a drone at UC Merced, a drone over a forest and a person releasing a drone in a field

The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS) announce the launch of CITRIS Aviation, a research initiative that will advance cutting-edge aviation technologies, applications and policies across the University of California campuses at Berkeley, Davis, Merced and Santa Cruz. 

Building on research conducted by UC faculty, startups developed through the CITRIS Foundry and activities led by students, CITRIS Aviation aims to help improve sustainability, mitigate wildfires, ensure a secure food supply, and protect privacy and security by shaping aviation research, projects and partnerships. 

“Aviation technology can help us address some of the grand challenges facing the world today,” says CITRIS Director Costas Spanos. “From deploying drones for environmental monitoring, to reducing the impact of commercial air transportation, as well as creating opportunities for the next-generation workforce, CITRIS and the Aviation initiative intend to catalyze innovations and research.”

Aviation — the design, development, production and operation of vehicles for flight — is approaching major inflection points. The commercial aviation industry is on track to become a top source of carbon emissions and thus a significant driver of climate change. Uncrewed aerial systems, also known as drones, UASs or UAVs, are poised to change how life-saving resources are delivered and surveying data are captured. However, they can also pose a threat to critical infrastructure in the hands of malign agents. 

Drawing on the expertise of a working group of around 60 aviation experts that meets monthly, the CITRIS Aviation initiative will facilitate cross-campus, interdisciplinary collaborations to address these challenges and harness new opportunities.

One such collaboration, sparked in a CITRIS Aviation working group meeting, is already seeing progress. A team of CITRIS researchers, led by UC Berkeley professor Raja Sengupta and including colleagues from UC Berkeley, UC Davis and UC Merced, will analyze the safety and policy implications of an advanced air mobility project for the Division of Aeronautics in the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). The partnership with Caltrans will result in best practices and guidelines for local and regional governments to assess, develop and fully realize the potential of using electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft as transportation in California. 

The initiative has also already made headway toward its goal of catalyzing interest in aviation among UC students. The inaugural CITRIS Aviation Prize competition launched this fall, inviting student teams to design, develop and demonstrate a fully autonomous flight with a small UAV. The winning proposal will receive up to $25,000 to demonstrate the actual flight in the spring. 

These early successes are a reflection of the strong foundations provided by each of CITRIS’s campuses. 

At UC Berkeley, the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS), a co-sponsor of the CITRIS Aviation Prize, is directed by CITRIS PI Alexandre Bayen. Areas of research at the institute include drone airspace governance, sustainable transportation fuels and urban air mobility. The campus is also a member of the National Center of Excellence for Aviation Operations Research (NEXTOR III), an eight-university consortium supported by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In response to the growing demand for aviation researchers, the UC Berkeley College of Engineering is adding an aerospace engineering major in fall 2022.

At UC Davis, CITRIS program manager Nathan Metzler directs the FAA-funded Drone Academy, a summer program that serves high school students in the Sacramento area who are underrepresented in STEM by educating them about flight and aviation. UC Davis also leads Habitats Optimized for Missions of Exploration (HOME), a seven-university NASA Space Technology Research Institute that explores critical technologies for semi-autonomous deep-space habitats for astronaut crews. 

UC Merced hosts the University of California Center of Excellence on Unmanned Aircraft System Safety, directed by mechanical engineering research assistant professor Brandon Stark, which provides system-wide guidance for UAS regulatory compliance. At the UC Merced Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation (MESA) Lab, multidisciplinary research teams investigate UAV-based remote sensing and promote aviation to underrepresented students through the UAS4STEM ecosystem. UC Merced also boasts the second largest student branch of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) in the nation. 

At UC Santa Cruz, CITRIS has supported aviation researchers with a recent seed funding round focused on drone applications. To further hone campus expertise, UC Santa Cruz established the CITRIS Initiative for Drone Education and Research (CIDER), which will educate faculty and students about drone development and use, and provide them with FAA licensure and hands-on research opportunities. UC Santa Cruz also plays a key role in the Monterey Bay Drone, Automation and Robotics Technology (DART) initiative, a nonprofit organization that supports academic, industry and government collaboration in the region’s developing drone and aviation industry. 

“We are excited to draw together the considerable strengths on each CITRIS campus to create a framework for innovation and impact in aviation technology,” says CITRIS Executive Director Camille Crittenden.

As it moves forward into the new year, CITRIS Aviation is seeking internal and external partners to co-develop next-generation technologies to ensure that everyone can benefit from aviation research and progress. Opportunities range from sponsoring research seed grants to collaborating with faculty and students on active projects, and more.

The initiative will launch a search for a faculty director in spring 2022.