Back to top


Automation is an inevitable transportation trend that has been accelerating in recent years, most visible in advances in automated and connected vehicles. But ground transportation is only one application of this technological field. The opportunities arising from automation include safety, cybersecurity, fuel efficiency, vehicle-to-infrastructure interaction, vehicle-to-vehicle interaction, and automated operations. Because almost all mobility services and applications will rely on partial or full automation in the near future, the field is crucial both strategically and pragmatically. Before autonomy becomes a reality at a ubiquitous scale, multiple advances are needed in robotics, machine learning, vision, control, and optimization. ITS has partnerships with several campus initiatives in these fields. For example, CITRIS encompasses more than 40 roboticists working on applications spanning transportation, human-machine interaction, unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) medical robots, and exoskeletons. And together with new PATH leadership, the Institute has started to invest in the field of deep learning.

Finally, UAVs are rapidly appearing in our skies at a rate of more than 200,000 units a month, likely leading to a full redesign of airspace in the coming decade, a paradigm shift that will rely on a complex interplay between technology, policy, and engineering, and will change mobility, logistics, and services as we know them. The field of logistics and remote services is in the infancy of a revolution, leading to a not-distant future in which drones will inspect bridges, provide first aid in disasters, and deliver packages. The Institute is at the heart of this transformation, with strength both in UAVs and air traffic control, in particular through NEXTOR and in partnership with the CITRIS People and Robots Initiative.

Raja Sengupta (right) and his student work on the landing apparatus for an unmanned autonomous vehicle student project designed to deliver coffee. The assignment addressed the challenge of protecting consumers from propellers as they remove goods from delivery drones. Photo Credit: Paul Kirchner

Q&A Raja Sengupta: Unmanned Autonomous Vehicles
Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Transportation interests: The national registry holds 220,000 aircraft — a measure of the size of our National Airspace System (NAS). The drone industry sells that many unmanned aircraft every month, upwards of two million a year. If an aircraft has a 10-year life, the NAS will go from 220,000 aircraft today to
20 million aircraft in a decade. When an industry grows by two orders of magnitude, old management systems fail. There are many exciting new research opportunities in unmanned aviation. This is what I now study.

Background: I am one of the creators of Berkeley’s first drone program in 1998. From 1998 to 2014, I worked on unmanned aircraft. Back then there was no unmanned aviation outside the military. But today, for the first time in the history of aviation, the aircraft has become a consumer product. We are witnessing the birth of unmanned aviation, which is what I study: Where and how can unmanned aircraft fly?

Pressing research questions: The biggest questions will flow from government pressure on aviation. Aviation has a predominant federal regulator and operator: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). By contrast, the roadway system has no federal operator at all, and a regulatory authority shared across our three-tier system of government. I find it hard to believe federal predominance will work as unmanned aviation grows to consumer scale. We will need more state and local governance. At the same time, the FAA is unlikely to smoothly relinquish its regulatory and operational authority for fear of leaving a vacuum in which reckless unmanned flying will harm people and property. In the future, the UAV industry is projected to reach $80 billion in value. The industry has aircraft but lacks airspace. Without space to fly, we cannot realize this value. So, unmanned airspace management is the next revolution.