Transportation engineer involved in drone traffic management

Arwa Aweiss, 38, flight test director for NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management Project, Ames Research Center

Arwa Aweiss didn’t set out to become an aerospace engineer. Through her civil engineering college coursework, she discovered a love of transportation engineering. Then, a series of jobs and a chance encounter led her to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Now, Aweiss oversees flight testing for NASA’s UTM, or Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management Project, an ambitious effort that involves the FAA, industry and academia in finding ways for millions of drones to someday fly in U.S. airspace, even over populated areas and out of view of their operators.

How did you become an aerospace engineer?

I wanted to study civil engineering because it offered a wide array of subjects: transportation, data mining and structural engineering. While earning a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at the University of California, Irvine, I realized I was interested in transportation engineering. I pursued a master’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, where I took great interest in air transportation. After graduation, I worked for Bechtel designing the international airport in Qatar and as an aviation consultant in San Francisco. I was working as a traffic engineer at San Jose International Airport when a friend invited me to join the Ames summer softball team. At a game, I met the Aviation Systems Division branch chief. A couple of weeks later, I got a call. They were hiring and thought I might be a good fit. That was 10 years ago. Now, I’m involved in program management and technical aspects of UTM flight testing. Six FAA designated unmanned aircraft systems test sites are participating. I coordinate with the sites and their partners, develop test objectives and performance measurements, and oversee tests. I also lead the data management team and work with NASA’s internal UTM teams focused on human factors, software and data monitoring.

Imagine 2050. What do you think will be happening in unmanned aircraft?

I think we will see millions of small unmanned aircraft systems flying and conducting a variety of public safety, commercial and hobbyist operations in U.S. airspace. Some of these will be beyond visual line-of-sight operations, in proximity to each other, in high-density air traffic and over densely populated airspace. They will perform package deliveries, search and rescue, infrastructure inspection, survey disaster areas, deliver medical supplies to disaster victims and more. I envision these technologies and capabilities will mature and UTM will continue to evolve to maintain the desired level of safety and efficiency to make all this possible. Without a doubt, UTM is a very important project that will have immediate impact on society. I’m very blessed to be working on it at NASA and alongside the FAA, other government agencies, industry and academia.

Transportation engineer involved in drone traffic management