College of Engineering News Room

SUM Lab Navigates the Future of Transportation

By Brad Stager

News that Slovakia’s Transport Authority recently certified a vehicle that transforms from personal car to private plane in minutes for use by Slovakian commuters and aviation enthusiasts illustrates how the options for moving people and material are growing.

The Klein Vision company of Slovakia promotes its AirCar as a dual-mode vehicle that can go from road to air operations in less than three minutes and is now focusing on production and marketing.

There have been two air-and-road vehicles (Airphibian and Aerocar) certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and its predecessor Civil Aeronautics Administration in the 20th Century, but neither vehicle progressed to the mass market.

While local traffic reports won't be updating airborne conditions for commuters anytime soon, the trend is clear. Increased use of a variety of low and medium-altitude aircraft, such as drones and piloted vehicles - like the $92,000, single-seat Jetson One from Jetson Aero - as well as automated vehicles of all types, flying or not, is creating a need for discovering how to most efficiently manage existing transportation resources and plan for what's next.

Meeting that transportation research requirement is a large part of what the University of South Florida Smart Urban Mobility Laboratory (USF SUM) does. The lab undertakes projects that examine mobility-related issues from the ground up, ranging from pedestrian safety and road pavement studies to using machine language to manage aviation assets and promote airspace safety by predicting conflicting trajectories.

Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Yu Zhang is the USF SUM Lab’s director, and she said that applying basic methods of inquiry has worked well for projects ranging from developing a campus bikeshare program at USF to analyzing automated air traffic management systems for the FAA.

“First of all, to understand the transportation problem we ask, 'What is it from our professional knowledge?'" Zhang said. "Then we communicate with related stakeholders to understand their needs and understand where the problems are.”

The tools that Zhang and the SUM Lab researchers use are qualitative and quantitative, such as employing surveys of transportation users and then applying state-of-the-art analytical methods to gain useful data for problem solving across a variety of metrics.

“The focus of my lab, Smart Urban Mobility, is to apply mathematical programming, machine learning, and simulation to study the transportation network," she said. "Then we come up with the solutions to improve the operational efficiency and sustainability and equity of the transportation systems."

Areas of research listed on the SUM Lab website are Advanced Aerial Mobility, Micromobility and Shared Automated Vehicles, Air Transport Management, and Resilient Cities.

Among the funded research projects the SUM Lab has been involved in is a $7 million award from the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish a Tier 1 University Transportation Center that examines topics such as shared mobility programs, airport pollution and different air mobility modes. Zhang was also the principal investigator for a $225,000 Florida Department of Transportation award to analyze future roadway options for the Tampa Bay area. Other research projects have examined managing effects of severe weather on flight operations and ensuring equity in access to transportation resources.

The prospect of a sky filled with unpiloted aerial vehicles and piloted craft such as electric-powered micro airships was on the horizon when Zhang began her graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, earning MS and PhD degrees in Civil Engineering there. By the time she arrived at USF in 2008 as an assistant professor, Zhang had already acquired experience in using statistical modeling to solve aviation transportation related problems. As tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning have become more accessible, the SUM Lab has made use of them to solve complex problems such as how to safely manage congested airspace.

According to Zhang, who also serves as a courtesy faculty member of USF’s Center for Urban Transportation, accomplishing the work that the SUM Lab is responsible for requires a diverse set of skills from the team members.

“We have a team of PhD students at different levels," she said. "We also have master’s students, not only just from our Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering but from the business school and the Department of Industrial and Management Systems Engineering. I recruit the students with the proper skills to join the research team and work together.”

Zhang, who is president of the Tampa Bay chapter of TWS International (formerly Women’s Transportation Seminar), also cites support from the College of Engineering as contributing to the SUM Lab’s successful management of research funding.

“Our administrative personnel are very helpful, from pre-award to post-award,” she said. Zhang will host the 10th edition of the International Conference on Research in Air Transportation, held June 19-23 at USF.