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Leadership Profile: Prof. Richard
  • 11 Jan 2021 09:37 PM
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Leadership Profile: Prof. Richard "Pat" Anderson

Eagle Flight Research Center

Vertiflite, January/February, 2021

At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Eagle Flight Research Center (EFRC) in Daytona Beach, Florida, Professor Richard "Pat" Anderson oversees investigations of alternative propulsion, unmanned aircraft systems, flight controls and automation, plus related certification issues. Much of the work explores electric propulsion. EFRC researchers began taxi tests in November with the fixed-wing, battery-powered e-Spirit of St. Louis. They are upgrading their hybrid-electric propulsion test rig with a rotary combustion engine and more integrated controls to reduce weight and increase specific energy. Many projects have students working for tuition and a stipend. Anderson explained, “Our primary mission is to provide students with hands-on experience in aviation and engineering. Our primary focus is student education and engagement. Secondly, we try to bring in projects that keep us at the forefront of science and technology.”

The EFRC matures both technologies and student researchers. Anderson acknowledged, “As students come in, especially undergraduate, they typically don’t know anything about electric propulsion. They sort of cut their teeth on the e-Spirit of St. Louis. If they show some promise on that and acquire knowledge, we hire them, and the student begins working on one of the other funded research projects. That’s one of the ways we bring our students up to speed in this highly interdisciplinary field.”

Researchers aim to use their PAV-ER (“Personal Air Vehicle at Embry-Riddle”) octocopter testbed to explore fault conditions for electrically powered vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL). “PAVER can simulate fixed-pitch rotors by just fixing the collective and cyclic and changing the rpm,” noted Anderson. “We can also simulate full cyclic and collective on a rigid rotor head like a Bo 105.” The EFRC director offered, “This is good research because we think there is a scaling law, a physical barrier on systems that are not only providing propulsive thrust but attitude control. As the rotor grows, the motor required to keep the same control power grows faster.” 

Anderson noted the EFRC Heurobotics Mk 2 unmanned eVTOL vehicle landed with little damage when the 
delta-winged tail-sitter lost one of its two variable-pitch propellers. “We actually transitioned from forward flight to hovering flight by adding a tremendous moment at the hub because of the rigid rotor,” Anderson explained. “In an octocopter, if you lose the forward left rotor, the only way with a fixed-pitch system to still fly is to turn off the mirror image of that system. That would mean you’d lose, for the first one, 25% of the thrust. For the second, you’d lose 50% of the thrust. If you have full collective and cyclic, you don’t have to turn any of the other rotors off. You can simply make moments around the hub.”

Anderson typically teaches graduate and senior undergraduate courses in electric propulsion and urban air mobility (UAM) and in flight controls including those for autonomous flight. He was also one of the co-founders of VerdeGo Aero, a powertrain developer for hybrid-electric aircraft. The company recently announced a collaboration with XTI Aircraft on hybrid power for the TriFan 200 autonomous cargo aircraft (see pg. 54). “I do believe all the fundamental technology for autonomy and electric propulsion exists today,” Anderson offered. “That is not to trivialize making commercially viable and certifiable things. I think UAM, while it is incredibly demanding from a certification standpoint and a technology standpoint, I don’t think there’s any fundamental scientific discovery that needs to be done to do that, at least with hybrid systems.”

Finding Flight

Richard Pasquale Anderson grew up in Springfield, Pennsylvania, west of Philadelphia, in a family without engineering or higher academic aspirations. “The family business is a welding business,” he recalled. “My father, Robert Richard Anderson, wanted me to be a welder.” Aviation nevertheless made an early and dramatic intervention. “My uncle was a Vietnam helicopter pilot. The first recollection I have is when he landed a Bell 47 in our front yard and took me for a ride. That made a huge impression.” Anderson's uncle, senior warrant officer Wayne Miller, later returned with a Hughes Cayuse. “We flew the OH-6 up to Fort Indiantown Gap and landed next to a Boeing CH-47. My uncle walks up to the front and tells the co-pilot to stay on the ground. As I sit in the copilot’s seat, my uncle takes this Chinook up and lets the 82nd Airborne jump out of the CH-47! You’d be in jail for doing that today.”

The joyride nevertheless led Pat Anderson to pursue a flying career. “I joined the Civil Air Patrol. Pennsylvania was very into search and rescue, and they started a scholarship program. I got my private pilot’s license at 17. There was a local Penn State University branch campus where I signed up to become an aerospace engineer thinking that was how you become a commercial pilot.” The young pilot-engineer also found a friend in gliding champion Karl Striedieck. “He helped me get my glider license. I became a glider instructor, a glider tow pilot, and I ended up working at Harris Hill in Elmira, New York, as an operations manager over the summer and did a lot of fun flying in central Pennsylvania from Eagle Field [Airport] and Ridge Soaring [Gliderport].”

Academia offered an unusual flying opportunity. “I just wanted to have a job, something that mixed both aviation and aerospace. Embry-Riddle was the only place that I saw where they had two departments that were both gorillas in things that I liked. I showed up at Embry-Riddle with only a Master’s degree. The president, Steve Sliwa, said, ‘I’m only going to hire faculty who are PhDs, so I’m not going to hire you as an engineer.’ He did help me get hired by Embry-Riddle as an instructor pilot. I went over to the University of Central Florida and signed up for a PhD in their mechanical and aerospace engineering department, so I worked at Embry-Riddle full-time and did a full-time PhD at UCF.”

Academia also returned Anderson to rotary-wing flight. “I helped a student who was struggling with flying at Embry-Riddle. She got her license and was accepted by the Navy and became one of the first female F-18 pilots. As a thank-you, she bought me a few hours of helicopter instructional time.” Anderson soloed in a helicopter around the time he earned his PhD. “Just a couple of years ago, I went all the way from that solo to a CFI [Certified Flight Instructor].”

Teaching opened unique research opportunities. “Back in the late ‘90s, Pete Pierpont came here to run the technologies department. He was a pilot and an engineer, and I’m a pilot and an engineer. Pete stood up what was known as Eagle Works back then without a mandate from the front office. The first research he pulled in was working on the SMA-305 diesel engine, trying to certify that in a Cessna 182. The University allowed Pierpont to continue bringing in projects for students to get hands-on experience in both engineering and aviation.”

Research continued in alternative propulsion. “It was clear that environmentally friendly technologies were of interest to students,” said Anderson. “The first liquid fuel research tested unleaded fuel in a twin-engine airplane. The other effort was the EcoEagle for NASA’s Green Flight challenge, the first manned, electric hybrid aircraft. It flew in 2011.

“We do not only electric flight and hybrid flight. We also do alternative liquid fuels as the [US Federal Aviation Administration’s] actual test organization for those fuels. Four years ago, we were in the FAA’s PAFI – Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative. We were testing all of the unleaded fuel options to replace 100 low-lead.” Eagle Flight Research Center continues research into certification. “The rationale for that is we keep our engagement with the FAA.”

Study Shop

As a full professor of aerospace engineering, Anderson leads an EFRC team including one full-time faculty and two staff researchers — all with PhDs and specialties in combustion, propulsion and flight controls. “Beyond that, I bring in folks from the University for projects. We just had a very large project with five other faculty members. That’s one of the ways we operate; we can be a little bit more nimble, a little more flexible with our time to work together and get a research contract in place. We would use our own assets and bring in whatever assets are required out of the main University.”

The first round of hybrid-electric powerplant research generated 87 kW of continuous electricity and 136 kW peak with battery and generator working together. Anderson noted, “We use this project to understand what is out there off the shelf. The thermal effects of this are incredibly challenging. In an automobile, they don’t worry about weight. They don’t worry about volume. Now we’ve written a lot of specifications, so we’re bringing in new stuff on the generator side, the motor and motor controller, the prime mover, plus the battery that’s not automotive.”

Battery technology limits electric flight. “We’re doing battery research at the pack level — we don’t do basic battery science,” said Anderson. “We try to be cell-agnostic, so we’re working on both energy packs and power packs, both phase-change-cooled batteries and immersion-cooled batteries.” Electric flight will evolve, and Anderson observed, “I think it’s going to play out like automotive. They had to use hybrids not for weight, which is our problem, but for cost. I think hybrid right now is the enabler, although battery technology is clearly of importance. I really like novel flying machines. Propulsion is the enabler of a lot of these novel things.”

VerdeGo Aero itself morphed from eVTOL aircraft developer to a propulsion house. Anderson explained, “We looked around and saw all the companies selling fiction. The more fiction they wanted to sell, the more money they were getting from investors. That’s still the fact today that there’s some pretty simple math to show the investment dollars are going the wrong way. We didn’t want to compete with that fiction. We decided to do this strategic pivot to what we thought they’d all need. The idea was to develop a hybrid system that could replace a battery and use it in a clean-sheet-of-paper design. Depending on your mission profile, it could be as much as four times better than a battery as it exists today.”

VerdeGo Aero also provides consulting services and pre-production hardware for the exploding UAM industry. “We are a UAM company, and we’ve made a profit for the past two years,” noted Anderson. “I don’t think there are a lot of UAM companies that can say that.” He added, “I do believe in the market. If you say 2050, I’d say yes, this is going to be out there. I think it will be very challenging to do this with a battery-only vehicle. But I do think this will happen.”

Pat Anderson has found the Vertical Flight Society a powerful information resource. “I go to the website all the time to see what’s going on. VFS has become a focal point for all things that are taking ofi vertically, and I’m interested in all of them. That said, while I do like to have my ears open, I like to test everything in the lab before I have a conclusion.”

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