Student Team RIPS a Tool for Aerospace

RIPS members, l to r: James Gidney, Aerospace; Victor Lin, Aerospace; Kathleen Yanit; Tim Wu; Peter Morfe; Elizabeth Spencer; Flavio Lorenzelli, Aerospace; and Stephen DeSalvo, UCLA. (Photo: Heather Golden)

Four college students with this year’s Research in Industrial Projects for Students, or RIPS, spent their summer working with a group of Aerospace mentors, breaking scientific ground and creating a new tool for company engineers.

The RIPS program is coordinated through UCLA’s Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics.

“The students, all undergraduate mathematics majors – Peter Morfe, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art; Elizabeth Spencer, University of Maryland; Tim Wu, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Kathleen Yanit, University of Guam – collaborated with members of the Systems Engineering Division and the Communications and Cyber Division to study and calculate the communications channel capacity of satellite communication systems.”

They worked primarily with four industry mentors from Aerospace — Victor Lin, associate director for the Modeling and Simulation Department; Flavio Lorenzelli, senior engineering specialist, Communication Systems Engineering Department; James Gidney, department director, Navigation and Geopositioning Systems Department; and Fletcher Wicker, retired casual, Communication and Network Architectures Subdivision — and one academic mentor provided by UCLA, Stephen DeSalvo.

“We hoped to provide engineers at Aerospace a tool with which to understand the performance of a system,” Spencer said during a final seminar where the team presented their results and demonstrated their new tool.

To do this, the students first researched the various factors that affect how information travels to and from communications satellites — scintillation, terrestrial multipath, and shadowing. These factors have to do with combinations of physical obstacles, like buildings, geographical features and weather patterns, that interfere with the data.

The team’s next step was to create mathematical formulas to be used to calculate and predict the new capacity levels given any number of the combinations of these interfering factors, called fading effects. This was their stated goal at the beginning of the nine-week program. But, they went a step further and created a user-friendly calculator in MATLAB, available for use by the Aerospace team.

“These tools developed will help us understand how well we are doing in meeting the capacity of communication systems,” said Lin, the principal investigator for the RIPS project. “It provides us with a benchmark to see if we can further improve communication performance of SATCOM systems.”

All four of the students said they did not know what to expect when coming to work with Aerospace at the beginning of the summer, only that their assigned project would somehow relate to mathematics. They ended up needing the separate skills each individual brought to the plate, like Yanit’s knowledge of probabilities and Spencer’s in-depth working knowledge of physics.

When asked their thoughts on the program, now that  it is concluded, the students all replied that the level of independence they were given during this project is what set this program apart from other similar programs they had previously participated in. They were given their own office space to share and complete control over the direction they took with the project.

“What’s also different about this program is it is the first time we’re doing something that’s quite applied, and the important thing I learned is with applied research, you really have to change your mindset,” Wu said.

RIPS is an annual, nationwide program that attracts the top mathematics students in the country. The program receives upwards of 600 applications each year, from which only 36 students are chosen. These 36 are split into nine teams of four and are placed with different industry leaders to complete projects outlined by those companies.

—Heather Golden