The Anatomy of Autonomy – Online Short Course (Started June 3, 2024) 3 June - 19 June 2024 Online

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  • From June 3 - June 19 (3 Weeks, 6 Classes, 15 Total Hours)
  • 3-Hour Classes, 2 lectures per class with a break in-between
  • Every Monday and Wednesday at 12:30-3:30 Eastern Time (all sessions will be recorded and available for replay; course notes will be available for download)
  • Autonomy is one of the hottest topics in all of aerospace … learn where we are, how and why we got here, and where we’re heading in this increasingly dominant aspect of the aerospace enterprise!
  • All students will receive an AIAA Certificate of Completion at the end of the course.

Digital technology has become pervasive across virtually all of aerospace. Its influence has arguably been nowhere more significant than in its role of facilitating autonomous operations for a diverse array of aerospace systems. Whether the goal be to simplify, assist or even eliminate the role of the human pilot/operator, increasingly sophisticated autonomous capabilities are changing the face of aerospace – facilitating the expansion of flight and mission envelopes, enabling novel new vehicle designs, and creating new opportunities and markets. The Anatomy of Autonomy short course is structured to enable a fundamental understanding of autonomous capabilities, the foundations of their design, and their impact on current and future aviation and space systems. An elemental decision cycle representation is introduced as the universal building block underpinning autonomous task design and implementation. An ensuing discussion of the resulting architecture is used to explore the differences between traditional automation and more advanced perception-driven autonomy. That discussion also serves to expand the attendees’ understanding of more complex and capable autonomous systems, including their design and integration into aerospace systems, as well as the operational potential and limitations of those systems. Examples from both aviation and space realms are used to facilitate an understanding of the potential of autonomy to increase security, safety, performance, and economic potential within the aerospace domain. An introduction to contemporary artificial intelligence (AI) methods and practice sets the stage for understanding how these technologies will enable and enhance autonomous capabilities in aerospace systems. The issues and obstacles that inhibit the use of AI in aerospace are also discussed. Regulatory and legal precedents, institutional constraints, and other societal factors that lie beyond the technical domain are also addressed. The course is structured to convey the authors’ diverse perspectives on these topics, including technological, developmental, and operational viewpoints, enabling a better understanding of its past, current, and potential future roles for autonomy in aerospace vehicles, systems, and related infrastructure.

Upon completion of the course, the attendee should:

  • Understand the value proposition for autonomy in aerospace systems.
  • Gain an appreciation for the historical evolution of autonomous capabilities in aviation and space environments.
  • Understand the functional architecture that serves as the design basis for autonomous capability.
  • Understand the importance and constraints associated with aerospace autonomy from an operational perspective.
  • Become familiar with those aviation and space applications that are serving as catalysts for the development of enabling technologies and systems.
  • Understand the opportunities afforded by increased autonomous capability applied to aviation and space platforms.
  • Understand the limitations of classical automation in creating autonomous capability.
  • Understand the role and complexity of task integration in developing increasingly autonomous systems.
  • Understand the potential roles and limitations of employing artificial intelligence technologies to enable autonomy in both aviation and space applications.
  • Gain an appreciation of the relationship between human stakeholders, including pilots/operators, with increasingly autonomous aerospace systems.
  • Understand the impact of autonomy on traditional areas of contemporary engineering practice.
  • Become familiar with the challenges to autonomous system design development and implementation beyond the technical arena.

This course is intended for students and professionals seeking to understand the foundation and fundamentals of autonomous aerospace systems’ design, integration, and operations, including the past evolution and future potential for autonomy in aerospace. The course is particularly suited to those in the broader aerospace community having limited familiarity with these systems, their enabling technologies, and their potential to expand the flight and mission envelopes of crewed and uncrewed vehicles and their supporting systems.

COURSE FEES (Sign-In To RegisterIt's not too late to register! Catch up by watching recorded lectures.
- AIAA Member Price: $895 USD
- Non-Member Price: $1,095 USD
- AIAA Student Member Price: $495 USD

CLASSROOM HOURS / CEUs: 18 classroom hours / 1.8 CEU/PDH

CANCELLATION POLICY: A refund less a $50.00 cancellation fee will be assessed for all cancellations made in writing prior to 5 days before the start of the event. After that time, no refunds will be provided.

CONTACT: Please contact Lisa Le or Customer Service if you have any questions about the course or group discounts.


1. Introduction and Overview
  • Introductions – Instructors & Attendees
  • Course Scope, Format and Objectives
  • Course Overview
  • Motivation for Autonomy in Aerospace
  • Origins and Early History – Air & Space
2. Autonomy: Description & Measurement
  • Definitions & Terminology
  • Autonomy Metrics
  • Levels of Autonomy – an Overview
  • Technologies of Autonomy
  • Autonomy in Aerospace Today
3. Foundations of Autonomous Systems Design
  • The Decision Cycle … the Functional Architecture of Autonomy
  • Task Level Autonomy
  • Autonomous Task Integration
  • System Level Autonomy
  • Examples – Air & Space
  • Supporting Hardware Systems & Attributes
4. The Operator’s Perspective - I
  • Pilots & Astronauts
  • Aviation Fundamentals – a Historical Perspective
    • Crew Resource Management
    • Roles and Responsibilities in Multi-pilot Aircraft
    • Threat and Error Management
    • Uncrewed Aircraft
  • Space Systems and their Evolution
    • Operating in Space
    • Space Race – Beginnings
    • The Astronaut’s Role & Evolution
    • The Emergence and Influence of Computing Power
    • Space Operations in the Late 20th Century
    • Crewed Space Systems in the Early 21st Century
5. The Operator’s Perspective - II
  • Contemporary Remote Vehicle Operations
    • Overview
    • Air Vehicles & Systems
    • Space Vehicles & Systems
    • Human-Autonomous Machine Interface
    • Atmospheric Vehicles on Other Planetary Bodies
    • Orbital & Deep Space Operations
  • Summary --- The Impact of Automation – An Operator’s Perspective
6. Catalysts
  • Flight Management Simplification
  • Uncrewed Air Systems
  • Optionally-Piloted Vehicles
  • Advanced Air Mobility
  • Air Traffic Management (ATM) & Deconfliction
  • Space Exploration
  • Shared Challenges
7. Autonomy Decomposed
  • The Decision Cycle Revisited
  • Automation vs. Perception-driven Autonomy
  • Information Gathering – Detect, Sense & Collect
  • Making Sense of the Data – Integrate, Assess, and Evaluate
  • Decisions – Determination & Application
  • Acting on the Decision(s) – Execute, Implement
  • ‘Intra-gration’ – Interactions Inside the Decision Cycle
  • Toward Perception-driven Autonomy
8. Task Integration for Flight & Mission Management
  • Integrating Automated Tasks … Significance & Challenges
  • High Level Integration of Routine Tasks
  • Examples
  • Advisory Systems and Decision Aids
  • The Autonomous Mission Manager (AMM)
  • Contingency Management … Automating the ‘What-ifs?”
  • Beyond the Integration Challenge
9. The Emergence and Impact of AI – I
  • Expectations and Opportunities
  • An AI Primer – Background & Definitions
  • Data and Data Management
  • Algorithm Overview
  • Algorithm Selection ad Application
  • AI vs. Machine Learning
10. The Emergence and Impact of AI – II
  • Humans and AI – Reality vs. Myth
  • The State-of-the-Art: Successes and Limitations
  • Roles for AI in Aerospace Autonomy
  • Creating an AI Ecosystem for Aerospace
  • The Path Ahead … Opportunities & Constraints
  • Summary
11. Contemporary Challenges & Constraints
  • Legacy Avionics and Related Issues
  • Software Complexity & Cost
  • Testing – the Verification & Validation Dilemma
  • The Data – Access, Recency, Interpretation, and Trust
  • Machine ‘Intelligence’ and Systems Engineering …
  • Cyber-physical Security Considerations
  • The Evolving Human-Machine Relationship
12. Autonomy – Into the Future
  • Evolving Air and Space Environments
  • The Influence of Emerging Technologies
  • The Evolution of Data: Maps, traffic, weather, health, intent, and more
  • Opportunities – New Capabilities, Missions, Markets …
  • Creating Trust – Paths to Certification
  • The Broader Challenges Ahead
  • Course Summary & Epilogue


  • The course lectures will be delivered via Zoom. Access to the Zoom classroom will be provided to registrants near to the course start date.
  • All sessions will be available on-demand within 1-2 days following the lecture. Once available, you can stream the replay video anytime, 24/7.
  • All slides will be available for download after each lecture. No part of these materials may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted, unless for course participants. All rights reserved.
  • Between lectures during the course, the instructor(s) will be available via email for technical questions and comments.
Dr. Michael S Francis has been a pioneer in the development of uncrewed and autonomous systems, having initiated what became DARPA’s original Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle Program in the early 1990s. He joined DARPA while still on active duty as an Air Force Colonel to lead the award-winning US-German X-31 Enhanced Fighter Maneuverability (EFM) Demonstrator program through its flight test phase. X-31 was developed to break the aerodynamic stall barrier and demonstrate the value of post stall maneuvering in close in air combat … it was the first (and still only) international X-plane development. During that same period, Col. Francis initiated DARPA’s original micro air vehicle (mAV) program, taking the concept of “uncrewed” to a whole new level. A decade later and following his military retirement, Dr. Francis served as the Director for the $4.5B DARPA-USAF-Navy Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) Program. He has also served in executive roles at Aurora Flight Sciences, Lockheed Martin Corporate Headquarters, General Atomics and United Technologies Corporation’s (UTC) Research Center. While at Aurora, he co-founded and served as the first president of Athena Technologies – a start-up control systems developer later acquired by Rockwell-Collins. At UTC, he initiated and guided Sikorsky Aircraft’s early efforts to develop autonomous systems for optionally-piloted and uncrewed helicopters. Francis holds B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in Aerospace Engineering Sciences from the University of Colorado. He is a Fellow of the AIAA and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering. He earned his private pilot license in 1964.

Professor Ella Atkins is Fred D. Durham Professor and Head of the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering at Virginia Tech. She is a foremost authority on autonomous aerospace systems with research contributions to both aeronautical and space domains. She serves as the editor-in-chief of the AIAA Journal of Aerospace Information Systems. Before joining Virgina Tech, Dr. Atkins was a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan where she also served as the Director of the Autonomous Aerospace Systems Laboratory, and the associate director of the University of Michigan Robotics Institute. She began her academic career as an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. Dr. Atkins holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Aeronautics & Astronautics from MIT. She earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Michigan. Her dissertation was entitled “Plan Generation and Hard Real-time Execution with Application to Safe, Autonomous Flight”. Atkins is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In 2022, she was named as the recipient of the AIAA Intelligent Systems Award.

C.E. “Noah” Flood - Since his first flying lesson at age 12, Noah has devoted decades to his love of aviation, flying a variety of aircraft ranging from general aviation aircraft to military fighters to large commercial airliners. Bringing operational experience, creativity, critical thinking, and curiosity to Anatomy of Autonomy, he seeks to influence the future of autonomy in the aerospace arena. Noah shares insights from experiences as a Civil Air Patrol cadet, Fighter Weapons School graduate, and Chief Pilot and Line Check Airman at a major American airline to demonstrate the applicability of autonomy within the aerospace realm. A graduate of the U. S. Air Force Academy and University of Cincinnati College of Law, Noah’s practical experience includes tactical testing and evaluation of the High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), flight tests resulting in the Supplemental Type Certification of the GLU-2100 Multi-mode Receiver, serving in an Aviation Safety Action Program, and negotiating a multi-billion-dollar labor contract. He is a member of the District of Columbia Bar and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). He served on the National Research Council, Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board’s Committee on Autonomy Research for Civil Aviation whose report is available through the National Academies Press. Noah has presented at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech and Aviation Forums and is a member of the Institute’s Advanced Air Mobility Certification Task Force. He is published in the Encyclopedia of Aerospace Engineering covering Social and Legal issues related to unmanned aircraft. As an amateur astronomer, Noah focuses his energy on the wonders of our Universe and its current exploration.


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