DARPA Young Faculty Award

Assistant Professor Andrea L’Afflitto Ph.D. has received the prestigious DARPA Young Faculty Award. The objective of this program is to identify and engage research in faculty positions by providing funding, mentoring and industry contacts. Professor L’Afflitto’s main interests in research in state and output-feedback optimal control theory for aerospace and mechanical engineering. This specific research project is going to focusing on training a drone that can be used for military purposes.

DARPA takes research proposals every year to give grant awards. They focus on the candidate and their backgrounds to make sure the research will be successful. L’Affitto prepared a pre-selection one-page summary of his research plan and then submitted a full proposal. He will have collaborator from Penn State, Eric Johnson, a very distinguished professor.

Today, drones fly in a straight line from point A to Point B, but if these need to be employed in combat scenarios or situations the involved the element of an animal or an opponent they may impede the goal of the mission. The ultimate goal is to find the best trajectory. The idea of his research is to mimic the behavior of prey animals. For example, a prey animal tries to avoid direct sunlight or tries to walk as close as possible to walls so that it can conceal its presence. To some extent this is the behavior that some ground troops have when they move around, trying to walk close to walls and hide their presence as much as possible. L’Affitto will work towards teaching a drone how to behave in such a manor. The drone should be able to understand its surroundings and respond accordingly. So, if the target is not reachable and there is a constraint of completing the mission, the drone could seek shelter, land, and wait for better conditions.

This research will have many challenges for L’Affitto to face, however he has a strong team to support him. The project started in July and will last for 2 years. If the program manager is satisfied with his research, they may recommend him for the presidential award which is even more prestigious. He says this is incentive to do even better.

L’Affitto’s final comments on this project:

“I am more thrilled than excited because the project is ambitious. Defiantly, the greatest challenge is instilling some kind of reasoning within a machine, in particular to a machine that is light weight and small, low power. Drones have the same power as a laptop from 4 years ago. I want to believe it can be done with my great collaborator and very motivated students, so I have a sense to believe that we will make it.”

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