Hampton University Professor Dr. Zhao Sun Part of Team

To Receive $8 Million from NASA to Advance Aviation Technology

HAMPTON, Va. (April 27, 2020) – Hampton University assistant professor for the School of Engineering and Technology, Dr. Zhao (Joy) Sun, is part of a team of faculty and students, which has been awarded $8 million from NASA. The team will seek to develop tools involving machine learning in autonomous systems for unmanned aircrafts, over the next four years. The award is part of the University Leadership Initiative (ULI), a collaborative effort between NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) and the U.S. university community, where universities take the lead, build their own teams, and set their own research paths.

“Congratulations to our own Dr. Zhao Sun for this amazing appointment,” said Hampton University President, Dr. William R. Harvey. “Dr. Sun is a great example of the excellent faculty we have here at Hampton University. She is sure to be a great role model to the students working on this project and will represent our illustrious University, while supporting NASA’s aeronautics research goals.”

There are five teams that were chosen for the ULI, with a total of $32.8 million that will go towards each team’s goals. “Each of these teams is working on important problems that definitely will help break down barriers in ways that will benefit the U.S. aviation industry,” said John Cavolowsky, director of NASA’s Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Sun is part of the Stanford University team, which also has representatives from MIT, UC Berkeley and Georgia Tech.. During the collaboration, Dr. Sun will spend four 8-week summer sessions at Stanford University. Their team is seeking to develop tools that ensure machine learning in autonomous systems used by unmanned Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) aircraft work as expected in real-time, as well as to employ fault detection and recovery methods if they do not, particularly in situations involving taxiing, landing and collision avoidance. Dr. Sun will serve as co-lead for the adaptation and robust performance part of the project as well as helping with other aspects.

“I really appreciate all the support and help from our Department, School and University,” Dr. Sun said. “I am very excited about the upcoming opportunity to work with the experts in air transportation, robotics, decision making under uncertainty and probabilistic modeling with Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, and Georgia Tech. The tight interdisciplinary collaboration definitely will leverage and extend our research in unmanned systems, which will allow for Hampton University to aim to lead the USRTC at Hampton Roads.”

Dr. Sun will also develop a plan for select Hampton University students to participate in the project and conduct research in the labs during the summers. “HU students will also benefit from this program. Based on the project, we will develop a co-advisory plan for two undergraduate students each year who will also be mentored by one of the investigators at Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, or Georgia Tech, depending on the project needs,” Dr. Sun said. “The co-advisory plan will culminate in an eight-week research term at the partner institution.  We will also reflect the results of this project in the classroom. At Hampton University, we plan to propose a technical elective course entitled, ‘Robotics and Machine Learning.’”

“In March 2019, Dr. Sun was selected by Hampton University as a Technical Assistance Scholar for the South Carolina State University Technical Assistance Workshops for HBCUs project, to learn more about competing for federal research and development support. This experience resulted in a summer research grant on quantum computing and quantum control at the National Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in which she was mentored by Dr. Bert de Jong of the Computational Chemistry, Materials & Climate Group in the Computational Research Division,” said Dr. Joyce Shirazi, Dean of the Hampton University School of Engineering and Technology. “Now she is part of a tight-knit interdisciplinary group of experts who will collaborate on a variety of projects, such as this NASA ULI. Hampton University will benefit greatly by leveraging these collaborations for upcoming projects led by the School of Engineering and Technology.”

Dr. Sun earned a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering in 2006 from North Carolina A&T State University, where she was involved in the development of a series of robust and adaptive control algorithms for a group of unmanned aerial/ground vehicles. She worked as a research scientist at the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), working on intelligent methods of path planning and formation control of unmanned aerie vehicles, and adaptive fault tolerant control strategies. She has also successfully developed reinforcement learning methods for power minimization and adaptive control of portable video devices to maximize their operational lifetime. Dr. Sun also has a Master of Science in Control Science and Engineering from Southeast University in Nanjing, China and a Bachelor of Science in system engineering from Nanjing University of Science and Technology in Nanjing, China.

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