Seeking safer skies for the USAF

Published: 07 Aug 2015

Amy Burns - WW 20150804

Amy Burns is automatic collision avoidance technology programme manager at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. She develops software and systems to prevent air accidents – but she also holds a world speed record.

How did you start out?

Between my junior and senior year in college, I interned for a research and development support contractor for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. I worked on researching and developing path-finding algorithms for multiple unmanned air vehicles that were executing a mission with multiple tasks, including pop-up tasking.

After earning my bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech, I decided to progress to the next stage. I received my master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 2005.

You began your work with the US Air Force?

I started working at the AFRL in the Air Vehicles Technology Assessment and Simulation (AVTAS) laboratory. After more than nine years I moved to my current job in the control systems branch, where I lead the automatic collision avoidance technology programme.

What other projects have you been involved with?

In college I was part of the human-powered submarine team. We designed, built and raced both non-propeller-driven and propeller-driven submarines. In 2004 I set the women’s world speed record in the one-pilot, non-propeller-driven submarine category with Virginia Tech’s submarine, called Specter. My top speed with this submarine was 3.427kt (6.3km/h). My involvement taught me a great deal about developing paper concepts and about making those concepts a working reality.

I have worked with students from the Air Force Institute of Technology and Test Pilot School on many different projects in the AVTAS laboratory. One that was particularly interesting looked at the handling qualities of a supersonic, tailless air vehicle. Multiple simulation evaluations were conducted in a dome-type simulator before this concept was flight-tested in the Calspan-operated Convair NC-131H total inflight simulator. As part of this effort, I had the opportunity to ride on board, and observe the flight from the front cockpit. I also worked with General Dynamics and the Human Effectiveness Directorate to develop a study that looked at reducing fatigue on [Lockheed Martin] F-16 pilots during long flights, through the use of various self adjusting seat cushion concepts.

What are you working on at the moment?

My team has developed an automatic ground collision avoidance system (Auto GCAS) to protect fighter pilots from controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents. This system was transitioned to the F-16, F-22 and F-35 programme offices. The F-16 programme office integrated it on their Block 40/50 fleet at the end of 2014.

My team is in the process of expanding this solution for aircraft with analogue flight control computers, specifically focusing on the pre-Block 40 F-16s under our hybrid technology programme. My team is also working on maturing our automatic air collision avoidance system (Auto ACAS) that is being designed to protect fighter pilots from mid-air collisions. This system was flight-tested in 2014 at Edwards AFB. My team’s next goal is to combine Auto ACAS with Auto GCAS under our automatic integrated collision avoidance system effort, thus maturing the technology in hopes of transitioning it in late 2017 to the F-16, F-22 and F-35 programme offices.

What needs improvement?

In the past there have been multiple manual warning systems added to the F-16 to try to protect the pilot from CFIT accidents. However, the problem with all of these systems was they caused nuisances to the pilot. The pilots therefore ignored or turned off these systems and the accident rate per flight hour did not change. Therefore it is critical to develop and field a system that is nuisance-free so pilots will use it. Our team believes Auto GCAS can protect against over 90% of CFIT accidents and Auto ACAS will protect against at least 75% of mid-air accidents.

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