The findings indicate that NASA’s aeronautics research enterprise has made, and continues to make, valuable contributions to aviation system safety, but it is falling short in some key respects. To address these shortcomings, the committee offers several recommendations at the conclusion of this chapter.


Do NASA’s Safety-Related Research Programs Have Well-Defined, Prioritized, and Appropriate Research Objectives?

The National Plan identifies a series of fundamental research challenges that are top national priorities and are intended to provide strategic guidance for all federal civil aeronautics research and development (R&D). In accordance with the plan’s challenges for safety research, ARMD’s Aviation Safety Program has established research projects to address the following concerns:

  • New Operations,

  • Flight In or Around Hazardous Conditions,

  • Loss of Control,

  • Durable Aircraft Structures and Systems,

  • On-Board System Failures and Faults, and

  • Analyzing Complex Systems for Safety.

As guideposts for programming safety research, these appear to be worthwhile objectives, consistent with the challenges identified in the National Plan and reflective of current and emerging safety issues. Whether the research being undertaken by ARMD to further these six objectives is sufficiently defined, prioritized, and appropriate, however, is a separate matter.

Because there are many aspects to each of the six research objectives, ARMD could choose to pursue any number of potential research topics commensurate with each. To make the best use of its resources requires that ARMD carefully examine the research needs associated with each safety objective and determine where it can contribute the most to meeting these needs in light of its own research competencies and work being undertaken elsewhere. The committee, therefore, expected to find a research prioritization process that is deliberate and well informed—supported by empirical analyses and advice from experts—and accompanied by a well-documented rationale for the program content.

In not finding a prioritization process resembling this ideal, the committee struggled in understanding why ARMD safety research focuses on certain issues and topics while paying little, if any, attention to others. The committee observed, for instance, that much of the research addressing “loss of control” centers on automation by seeking to advance the state of the art of adaptive control systems for aircraft. The basis for this research interest—as opposed to research on other topics relevant to loss of control, such as human interactions with automation—was neither obvious nor well explained. More generally, the committee observed an emphasis throughout the research programs on safety issues that apply to commercial air transport but relatively little work having direct pertinence to unmanned aircraft or general aviation, even though the former represents a potential vehicle configuration in NextGen and the latter has long accounted for the majority of fatal aviation crashes.

By not having a defensible, analytically based process for prioritizing its safety research, ARMD could not justify, in a convincing manner, much of the content of its research programs. Thus, in not having access to such an independent assessment of safety research needs, the committee could not determine whether ARMD’s safety research programs are prioritized to make the best use of available resources and neither can ARMD.

Finding 1: NASA needs a more objective process for prioritizing safety research. While the objectives of ARMD’s Aviation Safety Program are worthy guideposts for safety research, ARMD lacks a well-founded process for prioritizing the research needs associated with each objective, and thus for ensuring that its research is well aligned with meeting critical national aviation safety needs.

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