drone model

FXB Fellow Davoudi’s PhD research could enhance autonomous operation of urban delivery drones

The highly coveted FXB Fellowship is given to exceptional Aerospace Engineering PhD students to support their research on the analysis and design of flight vehicles. Meet recent graduate and FXB Fellow Behdad Davoudi.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Tehran, Behdad Davoudi was fascinated by German physicist Ludwid Prandtl, who created elegant yet simple aircraft design strategies using basic math and physics. Prandtl’s boundary-layer and wing theories were foundational to modern aerodynamics and early 20th century aircraft design.

Portrait of Behdad Davoudi

As a doctoral student in the University of Michigan’s Department of Aerospace Engineering, Davoudi was inspired to apply a similar level of intuition to create new models and equations representing drone and helicopter flight. His ultimate goal was to enhance vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft autonomy and navigation.

In 2018, Davoudi received a François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Fellowship, one of the most prestigious and valuable doctoral-level awards in the department, which provided $250,000 in funding to support the recipient and his research. This funding provided Davoudi with the freedom to go beyond theory development.

“I knew the FXB Fellowship was special, so I wanted to leave research work behind that would be substantial and unique,” Davoudi said. “I wished to make the faculty who selected me for the award proud and deliver a dissertation that was of a FXB Fellow quality.”

According to Aerospace Engineering Professor Karthik Duraisamy, one of Davoudi’s greatest strengths is his ability to break down any problem that he encounters in extreme detail and he finds unique ways of coming up with solutions, often from scratch. 

“In his PhD work, he derived a new aerodynamic model for rotors in forward flight, validated theory with experiments in the Aerospace Engineering wind tunnels, built and equipped—from scratch—a quad copter device, wrote embedded code, derived an analytical flight dynamic model relating outputs to controls, and demonstrated autonomous operation in a motion capture facility,’’ said Duraisamy, Davoudi’s doctoral advisor. 

Davoudi developed a hybrid blade element momentum model, which predicts rotor thrust for a diverse range of flight conditions, and a rotor-in-plane-force model, which can be used to estimate rotor drag force.

He also designed a framework for realistic flight simulations, which enabled him to accurately estimate flight trajectories and a flight vehicle’s associated control inputs by combining models for dynamics, control, aerodynamics, and wind conditions.

drone model
In his PhD research, Behdad Davoudi derived new aerodynamic models for rotors in forward flight and then built and equipped a quad copter to test and validate the models in extreme wind conditions.

He then built a quadrotor equipped with an ultrasonic wind sensor and RPM sensor and embedded both models onboard the unmanned aircraft, validating the models in the Aerospace Engineering wind tunnels and in extreme wind conditions by conducting flight tests at the University of Michigan Autonomous Aerospace Systems Lab.

I knew the FXB Fellowship was special, so I wanted to leave research work behind that would be substantial and unique. I wished to make the faculty who selected me for the award proud and deliver a dissertation that was of a FXB Fellow quality.

Behdad Davoudi

According to Davoudi, his models and framework have the potential to enhance the operation of military UAVs, package delivery drones and flying taxis, which will have to navigate in difficult wind conditions in urban settings.

“These vehicles will have to deal with rapidly changing wind conditions because they essentially fly between buildings,” said Davoudi, who completed his PhD in May and is currently working as a post-doc in Duraisamy’s Computational Aerosciences Lab. “Therefore, they require wind-sensing and physics-based models that see the changes in the wind so that they can adjust accordingly for autonomous flight. Such models could also be applicable for manned flight to help a pilot deal with unpredictable wind conditions.”

In the late fall, Davoudi will relocate to Raleigh, NC, to work on his start-up company, Watts Motors LLC, focusing on autonomous vehicles. He’ll leave Ann Arbor with gratitude and fond memories of his time here.

“I owe a big portion of my success and awards to Professor Duraisamy, who is a very insightful advisor,” he said. “Karthik put me in the right research position and allowed me to pursue my research interests in aeromechanics. Success is not random, it undoubtedly comes with incredible support from my parents, friends and my fellow graduate students.”

He added: “I’m beyond grateful to the United States. I love this country and appreciate the generosity of American society, who gave me so many opportunities so I could work hard and excel.”

In addition to the FXB Fellowship, Davoudi earned two other prestigious University of Michigan awards: a Gupta Values Scholarship in recognition of integrity, commitment to human dignity, and dedication to excellence and a Rackham International Student Fellowship presented to outstanding international students. 

About the FXB Fellowships

FXB Fellowships are funded by the FXB Foundation, an international development organization founded by Countess Albina du Boisrouvray to honor the memory of her son Francois-Xavier Bagnoud (BS 1982), a Michigan aerospace engineering graduate and rescue pilot who was killed in a tragic helicopter accident at the age of 24. The Foundation supports global activities and organizations that were important to Francois-Xavier, including his fascination with flight and space. At the University of Michigan, the Foundation provided a major gift to house the Department of Aerospace Engineering—the FXB Building—as well as an adjacent Wave Field memorial sculpture by artist Maya Lin. The Foundation also funded a chair professorship, the Center for Rotary and Fixed Wing Design, and the $250,000 FXB Aerospace Prize.


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