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Meet: Rich Coppenbarger

a photo of rich coppenbarger

Aerospace Engineer
Ames Research Center

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Who am I
I develop systems (hardware and software) to assist air traffic controllers in managing aircraft as they fly through the nation's airspace. The program that I am working on, called Advanced Air Transportation Technology (AATT), is designed to develop technology to help increase the safety, efficiency and capacity of the nation's air transportation system by improving air traffic control technology. A key component of AATT is a set of software tools called the Center-TRACON Automation System (CTAS). "Center" refers to large regions of airspace that aircraft fly through en route to their destination. The United States as a whole is divided into 24 Center regions. The term TRACON, which stands for Terminal Radar Approach Control, refers to local control regions responsible for managing aircraft departing or arriving an airport. The CTAS software helps controllers keep airplanes separated to avoid collisions. CTAS also helps manage the flow of aircraft into and out of airports so that traffic moves smoothly and without delays.

CTAS is not operational yet except at Dallas/Fort Worth on a trial basis. There really is no automation system for air traffic controllers today. Air traffic controllers today must rely upon their skill and experience to predict where airplanes will be in the future and where conflicts are likely to occur. As a result, the job of an air traffic controller is extremely difficult and stressful. Today, controllers must rely upon radar and computer technology developed in the 1950s and 60s. While today's system is safe and has been proven to work over many decades, it will not be able to function efficiently under the increased traffic conditions predicted in the very near future.

The program that I am working on involves exchanging data between aircraft in the air and controllers on the ground. The technology that allows us to do this is called data link, which is similar to cell-phone technology and uses satellites and VHF radios to transmit information between pilots and air traffic controllers. Data link will allow aircraft information, from on-board avionics systems, to be down linked to the ground in order to improve the trajectory prediction and scheduling algorithms in CTAS. With up-to-date information from aircraft flight management and navigation systems, air traffic controllers will have more information at their fingertips. The basic philosophy is the more information the better. The type of data that will be transmitted includes aircraft speed, altitude, position, wind, temperature and pilot intent information.

My Career Journey
My father was in the United States Air Force and we lived on an Air Force base. As a small child I found the noise of the planes frightening. To help me overcome my fears, my father encouraged me to become interested in airplanes. Soon I was spending hours building plastic airplane models and paper airplanes. In junior high I even formed a paper airplane club where I held contests to see who could design an airplane, from a plane sheet of paper, that would fly the furthest or stay in the air the longest. We experimented with all sorts of techniques such as airplane launching systems and use of thermal updrafts to improve performance. Soon after, I became interested in model rockets and was curious to find out how high I could get one to fly and still be able to recover it with its payload intact. I would stack numerous engines together in my quest for high altitude.

By the time I reached high school I knew that I wanted to pursue a career that had something to do with aeronautics and soI began putting a special effort into my science and math courses. At first I was not that good at math, but with the help of good tutors and by challenging myself I was able to do well. By my senior year of high school, I knew that I wanted to be either a pilot or aerospace engineer. My first choice was to be a pilot in the Air Force with the hope of going on to become a commercial pilot, flying for the airlines. Unfortunately I was not able to pass the vision test for becoming a pilot, which at that time was very strict. As a result, I decided on option "B" which was to become an aeronautical engineer. I enrolled at the University of Arizona and studied aerospace and mechanical engineering. I took many challenging classes and by studying very hard was able to graduate first in my class.

Upon graduation, my professor at the University of Arizona helped me get an internship with San Jose State University to work at NASA Ames Research Center. Soon after that, I was offered a permanent position at NASA. Immediately after beginning work at NASA, I enrolled in the Honors Co-op Program to get my Masters degree part time at Stanford University. Since I was working full time, I took only one or two courses a quarter but eventually earned my degree.

I worked on one project at NASA involving guidance and control system research for helicopters. I worked on a program called Automated Nap of the Earth (ANOE). "Nap of the Earth" is a term that refers to flying very close to the ground (less than 50 feet in altitude). When a helicopter flies "Nap of the Earth", usually during covert military missions, it is trying to avoid being detected by radar. This type of flying allows the helicopter to take advantage of hills and trees and everything around it so that it can sneak up on an enemy without being seen and protect itself from being shot down.

In the ANOE program, we were trying to develop guidance and control technologies that would reduce the work of the pilot and keep helicopters from crashing while flying Nap of the Earth. It is obviously very dangerous whenever a helicopter is flying very close to obstacles and terrain. The purpose of ANOE was to develop an automatic obstacle-avoidance system that would allow the pilot to fly almost "hands-off", thereby giving him more time to focus on other tasks, such as aiming and firing weapons.

We spent a lot of time developing sensors that could replace the pilot's eyes. We considered the use of both active and passive sensors. Active sensors were things like millimeter-wave radar which emit energy ahead of the helicopter to sort of paint the world in front of it. Passive sensors were things like TV and Infra-Red cameras which don't emit any energy themselves but take in energy that is radiated from the outside world. We focused more on the passive sensors since they made it harder for the helicopter to be detected by an enemy. In order to use the information gathered from these passive sensors, we had to perform a lot of computational processing on the image to determine how far away things were. This is a very complicated thing to do. For example, if you take a picture of something right now out the window you have an idea how far away things are in that image. To have a computer make those calculations is a very complicated task.

Once, we were able to extract depth or range information from an image, we could then use it to build up model of the world in computer memory and either display it directly to the pilot or use it to perform some additional guidance processing. I was responsible for developing the guidance algorithms which say, okay, we have an obstruction ahead of us, how should we go around it (or over it) in order to make sure the helicopter doesn't hit anything? Once it was decided how an obstacle should be avoided, we would send that information to the automatic control system, which was responsible for moving the helicopter controls in the proper way. Furthermore, I had to come up with a way in which automatic control inputs and manual control inputs, i.e. from the pilot, could work together in a harmonious way. The concept that I developed for doing this was called "Pilot-Directed Guidance." It was similar to the way in which a rider steers a horse. The rider pulls on the reigns and generally points the horse in the right direction, but the horse is smart enough to avoid obstacles on its own. We wanted to make the helicopter a lot like a smart horse.

Many of the ideas and technologies that we developed for ANOE were tested on the Vertical Motion Simulator (VMS) here at Ames prior to being flight tested on our research helicopter. The VMS has the largest vertical range of any simulator in the world and can simulate the motion of a helicopter very realistically. Our research helicopter was an actual UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, similar to that used today by the U.S Army, but with many different types of sensors and displays to support research projects. The project engineers got to fly in the back of the helicopter so that they could monitor their research projects.

Why I Like my Job
Because Ames is a research center I am always working on unique problems that have never been solved before. Also, since NASA only carries out the basic research and engineering, or proof-of-concept, employees don't get stuck working on the same thing for too long. Research is typically very dynamic and constantly exposes you to new problems and new ideas. This is different to a lot of production-oriented companies where the job can sometimes be monotonous and repetitive. Working in a research environment gives you a lot of flexibility to express your personal interests in not only coming up with the answers to problems, but also in defining the questions themselves.

It is also very inspiring to work at such a unique and interesting place. NASA Ames Research Center has state-of-the-art computers, wind tunnels, aircraft, and flight simulators which attract scientists and engineers from all over the world. There is also a lot of history here. For example, much of the technology used to put a man on the moon was developed here at Ames. Ames has also played a key role in many space projects, including the Space Shuttle, Mars Pathfinder, Galileo, Hubble, Voyager and Pioneer - just to name a few.

Advice
My advice to children interested in a career in aerospace engineering is to start by being inquisitive and experimenting with aviation. Learn by having fun with things like radio-controlled airplanes, rockets and kites. Talk to your teachers about your interest in aeronautics and find out if there are any clubs or activities that you could become involved with. I would also encourage you to read and ask questions about the fascinating history of aviation and the space program. Children should also understand that math and science are very important to a career in aerospace engineering and should try to take an interest in these subjects. Even if at first these subjects don't come easy, with enough patience and hard work anybody can master them.

Early Influences
I had a high school teacher who had been an engineer and who had a great sense of humor. His name was Mr. Sheehan. He knew that math did not come easy for me but kept putting me to the test, often in front of the whole class. At first, I dreaded his class because I was afraid of making a fool of myself when he would call me up to the board to solve problems. The experience, however, forced me to think on my feet and learn to overcome my fear of math. Soon I was looking forward to being "called up to the board" so that I could show off in front of the class. Every time he would introduce a new subject, Mr. Sheehan would relate it to some interesting story or anecdote, which proved to me that math doesn't have to be boring and painful.

Goals
In the future, I am interested in management at NASA and working on bigger and more challenging projects. I am considering getting my Masters in Business Administration (MBA) to complement my engineering degrees.

Personal
It is very important to me to have a life outside of work. In addition to traveling a lot and visiting with friends and family, I also enjoy staying physically fit by lifting weights, running, bicycling and snow boarding.

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