Aerospace Engineer Hopes to Bring Back Supersonic Travel

January 2020
Qina Diao
Qina Diao

When Qina Diao was a child in China, commercial airplane travel was pretty rare and considered quite a privilege. Her first airplane trip made a deep impression on her.

"When I heard the loud noise the engine made, I got really excited," she says. "I've never forgotten that feeling."

Later, at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, where many of her contemporaries were computer science and electrical engineering majors, she found even more reasons to fall in love with aviation and aerospace.

"In computer science, old technologies are constantly being replaced, but in aerospace there's a buildup. Things evolve over time, so your experience has value," she says. "And aerospace integrates so many different perspectives and technologies—from fluid dynamics and electrical engineering to physics and math."

Diverse Skills, Extensive Experience, and a Sense of Excitement

Since joining MITRE in 2016, Diao has tapped into her diverse skill set, extensive experience, and sense of excitement to help the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) improve the way it manages airspace.

Diao works within the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, the federally funded research and development center MITRE operates for the FAA. Her speciality is helping modernize air traffic management (ATM), and she has a reputation for applying technical research to solve real-world problems.

Diao is currently on a team helping the FAA introduce trajectory-based operations (TBO) into the National Airspace System. TBO is a method for strategically planning, managing, and optimizing flights using time-based management, information exchange between air and ground systems, and the aircraft’s ability to fly precise paths in time and space.

The goal is that, by 2025, the switch to TBO will usher in a range of improvements, including enhanced flight efficiency, fewer delays, more predictable arrival and departure times for passengers, and reduced aircraft emissions.

To accurately measure TBO performance improvements, the FAA needs to develop the right performance metrics. This is where Diao comes in. She's developing these metrics using data from two particularly busy airports: Philadelphia International and Newark Liberty International.

She's also involved in a MITRE-sponsored research project to build a real-time decision support tool using artificial intelligence that will help the FAA better manage traffic during periods of heavy demand. American Airlines, IBM, and The Weather Company are partners on this effort, which recently received funding for a second year of research.

Having a Direct Impact for the Sponsor

Assisting the FAA is a key reason Diao wanted to come to MITRE in the first place.

"I knew that, at MITRE, I could push my research forward to tackle real-world problems," she says. "And that I would be able to have a direct impact."

The project that may come the closest to recreating the excitement she once felt hearing a plane engine roar to life is her research into the viability of future supersonic air transportation.

Supersonic aircraft—planes that fly faster than the speed of sound—have been used mostly by the military. The one commercial attempt was the Concorde, which ceased operations in 2003. Right now, NASA and at least three private companies are developing supersonic models they hope to one day introduce into the nation's airspace.

That won't be easy. Current air traffic control management is not designed for such fast planes. For instance, landing operations are based on the height, takeoff and approach angles, and altitude of "subsonic" aircraft. These calculations help the FAA determine the most efficient arrival procedures and schedules.

But sound-barrier-breaking aircraft will be coming in higher, faster, and at steeper angles. In other words, they will shatter this model. Diao is engaging with stakeholders to identify the steps that will need to be taken to address these and other challenges. She recently led a MITRE-sponsored research project to understand the current landscape of supersonic aircraft technologies and their potential impact on traffic management.

"If these companies are successful at introducing supersonic aircraft, how will the FAA handle it? It's a huge challenge," she says. "It's so rewarding to be able to put my skills and vision to use to address this issue."

When she isn't working on aircraft, Diao is likely taking a trip to some exotic place. She recently returned from two weeks in the Galapagos Islands, where she swam with sea lions and checked out a killer whale. She also returns to China every couple of years to visit family.

And guess what? "Honestly, I still get a thrill when I hear the plane engine," she says.

—by Twig Mowatt

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