In pursuit of networked drone operations

  • 27-Jun-2017 01:54 EDT
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Principal Investigator Natalia Alexandrov makes the pitch to a group of NASA aeronautics managers for her team’s study, ATTRACTOR, which will explore how to embed reliability into algorithms that are used over time to inform autonomous systems in aviation.

NASA researchers have been officially cleared to begin formal feasibility studies on advanced Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) concepts under NASA’s Convergent Aeronautics Solutions (CAS) project. The investigations, three in total, are expected to take between 24 and 30 months to complete.

"Our idea is to invest a very modest amount of time and money into new technologies that are ambitious and potentially transformative," said Richard Barhydt, NASA's acting director of the Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program (TACP). "They may or may not work, but we won't know unless we try."

The studies, which were selected by a team of NASA aeronautics managers, cover the safe inclusion and certification of autonomous UASs, development of new methods and technologies to verify structural and mechanical integrity of remotely piloted drones before flight, and quantum computing and communication technology as a means of building a secure and jam-free network for use by hundreds of thousands of drones daily.

For their studies to be considered, the research teams had to form on their own, represent multidisciplinary talents, and have members from more than one of NASA's aeronautics research centers in Virginia, California and Ohio. The three selected proposals join five that were selected in 2016 and six that were selected in 2015.

However, these new studies are a small part of NASA’s overall work on incorporating unmanned systems and unmanned traffic management systems into national airspace. Just recently, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) coordinated on a stage-two developmental test for NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Universal Traffic Management (UTM) technology.

The first phase included a research partnership with AT&T to investigate flight path monitoring, flight planning, navigation, surveillance, and tracking of drones during line-of-sight operations. Phase two moved into beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) operations. These sorties were performed with visual observers (VOs) and NASA-developed command and control (C2), communication, detect, and avoid technologies.

Five UAVs, or drones, operated near FAA-designated Nevada UAS Test Site and demonstrated parachuted emergency supply drops and aerial survey operations. This event kicked off a three-week Technology Capability Level 2 (TCL2) National Campaign which involved industry partners and six FAA Test Sites.

The drones were configured for video surveillance, search and rescue missions, and farmland and infrastructure inspection. One of the drone tests included delivery and was conducted by the Project Wing team within Alphabet’s X company at the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership test site. The X operator used three drones to delivery packages in the same area as two Intel drones and a DJI drone were conducting autonomous search and rescue protocols.

The test operations were monitored and controlled remotely through a NASA UAS Service Supplier (USS) network to the NASA Ames Research Center in California to test centralized and automated aspects of unmanned flights. The centralized system tested UAS traffic mapping, sensor, and radar technology. It also has the capability to clear or deny flights based on conflicting flights and other variables.

“Operators have historically had to steer their aircraft away from obstacles manually; instead, we demonstrated that our UTM platform can automatically manage the flight paths of all these different types of UAS, planning new, clear routes for each aircraft if and when conflicts arise,” James Burgess, co-lead of Project Wing, wrote about the test. “In the coming months, we’ll continue to refine our UTM platform’s ability to support more simultaneous flights and navigate environments of greater complexity.”

The operations were supported by Del Air Tech and SensoFusion who provided UAS and drone detection technologies.

“Industry will have a major role to play in the implementation, operation and maintenance of UTM systems in U.S. airspace and this campaign of test activities will provide a glimpse into how they will play these roles by connecting their system prototypes and components with NASA’s UTM research platform,” said Arwa Aweiss, coordinator of the second phase of NASA’s program.

NASA’s plans include two more phases, TLC3 and TLC4, each more progressively complex. The future stages will include more real-world scenarios such as flying over populated areas, likely in 2018.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the FAA also recently began researching drone detection systems at Dallas Fort Worth airport in Texas.

The FAA plans to use its findings to develop a set of minimum performance standards for drone detection systems implemented at U.S. airports. This research has been ongoing for more than a year. Other airports involved in the research include JFK in New York, ACY in Atlantic City and DEN in Denver, among others.

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