Near Earth Autonomy to enable safe unmanned flight in the national airspace
June 18, 2014
PITTSBURGH—The Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR), funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has awarded a development contract to Near Earth Autonomy Inc. (Near Earth) to advance Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) integration in the National Airspace System (NAS). Serving as Principal Investigator, Sanjiv Singh, CEO will lead the project. He states “UAS’s and, in particular, intelligent, autonomous aircraft operating in the NAS have the potential to significantly impact modern society.”
UAS’s could perform difficult and dangerous tasks such as fire fighting, border patrol, and search and rescue, and dull tasks such as surveying crops. The elimination of a cockpit and the pilots makes UAS operation attractive from an economic standpoint. In addition, much of the technology used for autonomy could benefit manned flight as a pilot's aid to help in tasks such as landing on an oil rig in the high seas. Open questions remain, however, about how unmanned autonomous aerial vehicles can be safely incorporated into the NAS. UAS's operating in the NAS must sense and avoid other vehicles, follow air traffic commands, avoid the terrain and land without operator intervention, react to contingencies, and be reliable and cost-effective. The current approach for UAS integration relies on radio links and the operator's acuity to direct them. Lost links, however, are unavoidable. UAS's must have the capability to make their own decisions based on information available via databases and information discovered by onboard sensors. Near Earth proposes to develop technologies and capabilities leading to fully autonomous systems that are able to discover and adapt to unpredicted changes in their environment, and yet still accomplish the mission, with minimal or no human involvement. The project focuses on developing autonomy in the form of sensors and computer software that will enable UAS's of the future to operate safely in the NAS. Additionally it undertakes how the technical challenges can be met and how the technology developed can be shown to be both trustworthy and commercially viable for general aviation. This is aligned with NASA's current initiative for safe integration of UAS’s in the national airspace led by Langley Research Center.
Near Earth envisions the initial NASA market to be primarily units for testing and validation at both the system level and at the air vehicle level. Near Earth’s unique autonomous capabilities will contribute to NASA's testing and validation of the technologies and concepts for UAS operations in the NAS. For example, Near Earth’s technology will enable more comprehensive flight-testing of UAS’s for NASA's collaborative efforts with the FAA. This will accommodate UAS operations in the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). As the autonomous flight capabilities mature and are integrated into air vehicles, they will be of direct use to NASA in their flight testing of ground-based air navigational aids and guidance systems located in remote areas, such as Antarctica. Near Earth's autonomous technology will enable greater utilization of UAS in other NASA areas, particularly for experimentation and testing in the various research centers and will extend to non-NASA commercial applications.