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Near Earth Autonomy Helps NASA Open the Skies for Drones

BY Isabella Lee
19 November 2019

NASA and the FAA recently completed the final phase of a 5-year research project aimed at developing an air traffic control system for drones. For five years, NASA has been testing its Unmanned Air Traffic Management System (UTM) concept in phases, with the final phase concluding August 23rd in Corpus Christi, Texas.

NASA Completes UTM Research

NASA partners, ANRA and Near Earth Autonomy, onsite at the final phase UTM demonstration in Corpus Christi, TX. 

The research resulted in a better understanding of how drones can safely integrate into low-altitude airspace with other aircraft. NASA and its many partners demonstrated to regulators that multiple aircraft can be flown simultaneously in complex urban environments.

NASA Corpus Christi Demonstration Tackles Issues of Safe Landing in Urban Areas

Back in February, NASA announced two locations to host the final phase of its UTM project, one of which was the Lone Star UAS Center for Excellence & Innovation, located in Corpus Christi, TX.

The Corpus Christi demonstration was focused on advanced drone operations at altitudes between 200 feet and 400 feet within a dense city environment.

City landscapes present unique  challenges to drone traffic management, including:

  • more obstacles to avoid,
  • specific weather and wind conditions,
  • reduced lines of sight,
  • reduced ability to communicate by radio,
  • and fewer safe landing locations.

The Pittsburgh-based company, Near Earth Autonomy, provided a drone with a sensing/computing payload for handling contingencies requiring emergency autonomous landing.

Near Earth’s drone was able to land successfully over 25 times during the demonstration. The system is shown below on a drone overlooking Corpus Christi Bay.

Near Earth Autonomy System NASA UTM Project

When flying drones BVLOS, vehicles need to be prepared to handle unexpected circumstances such as GPS-degradation, competing radio frequencies, inclement weather, and variable landing conditions. Near Earth’s system enables drones to handle unexpected circumstances safely even when communications are lost.

Communications are absolutely critical. When you take a concept like this into reality, everything is going to be web-based. Therefore, one of the purposes of the event is defining what successful parameters will look like.

— Jason Blevins, Lead Engineer, UAS Center for Excellence & Innovation

The FAA has designated UAS Service Supplier (USS) platforms to facilitate communication between drones and NASA’s UTM.

Collaborating with ANRA as their USS, Near Earth’s drone repeatedly demonstrated the ability to react to contingencies that required flying to the closest designated landing site and finding a safe place to land. Nearly twenty simulated and seven live vehicles simultaneously communicated with the USS providers who relayed data to NASA’s UTM during the experiment. Landing sites are evaluated by rapid three-dimensional reconstruction of the terrain using onboard LiDAR as shown below.

LiDAR Drone Data Render

The Next Steps of Unmanned Air Traffic Management

NASA plans to continue research into 2020 and to use the results of the UTM demonstration to assist the FAA in developing a nationwide system for flying drones in the low-altitude airspace.

The electric aerial vehicles that we enable to fly autonomously will make on-demand transport widely available while decreasing cost, congestion, and pollution.

— Sanjiv Singh, CEO, Near Earth Autonomy

The demonstrations hosted by NASA were a critical collaboration between technical and regulatory stakeholders to prove they could manage commercial drones in an urban environment. As regulators continue to support progress, new markets will emerge with dramatic improvements in the speed and efficiency of transportation.

Operating in densely populated areas presents a challenge to most drone pilots and often requires obtaining airspace approval and/or a waiver. Head over to our community forum to share your thoughts on the work NASA and its partners are doing to overcome the obstacles of operating drones in urban environments.

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