Ohio University

Premier aviation association names electrical engineering alumnus top graduate student

Premier aviation association names electrical engineering alumnus top graduate student

Authors: Bennett Leckrone and Colleen Carow

An Ohio University electrical engineering alumnus has been named the leading graduate student nationwide for his research in aviation electronics and telecommunications.

RTCA, formerly the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, granted Pengfei “Phil” Duan, Ph.D. ’19, M.S. ‘11, the William E. Jackson Award, which is given annually to an outstanding graduate student. RTCA is the nation’s premier venue for developing public-private consensus on critical aviation modernization issues.

Duan’s dissertation, “Predictive Alerting for Improved Aircraft State Awareness,” deals with reducing pilot error – one of the main causes of many aircraft accidents – by increasing the pilot’s awareness of what the aircraft is doing through messages and alerts.

“Aviation is already the safest transportation system,” said Duan, who is now a software engineer at Tesla. “My hope is to make it even safer.”

Duan’s in-depth research meant reviewing hundreds of aircraft accident reports, recreating accident scenarios in a simulation, and coming up with an algorithm to help pilots avoid accidents. The work culminated with NASA and the University of Iowa conducting flight tests in which pilots flew the simulations and gave feedback.

“Phil is not only a very good engineer and researcher, but also very good at working together as part of a team,” said Edmund K. Cheng Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Maarten Uijt de Haag, Duan’s dissertation adviser. “The best example of this is Phil’s on-site collaboration with NASA Langley Research Center engineers to integrate his methods in NASA’s research flight simulator.”

Duan said the Russ College of Engineering and Technology’s graduate courses in avionics, navigation and sensor fusion fueled his high-level, award-winning research.

“They’re fundamental to both my dissertation and my current work,” Duan said. “After several years in the industry, I still regularly go back to my class notes when running into problems at work.”

He added that his research on aviation safety prepared him for his current work at Tesla.

“It gives me the mindset of ‘safety first’ when developing algorithms for the Tesla Autopilot system,” Duan said. “A lot of technical skills I learned during my aviation research are applicable for me to help develop the safest car in the world.”

Duan received a $4,000 cash honorarium and commemorative plaque for the award, which is a memorial to William E. Jackson. Jackson was a pioneer in the development and implementation of the nation's air traffic control system, and an enthusiastic supporter of student engineers. 

Duan is the seventeenth OHIO recipient in the award’s 42-year history. Former honorees include faculty from the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, including Professor Chris Bartone, Thomas Professor Michael Braasch and Russ Professor Frank van Graas.

Marissa McDaid contributed to this story.