NASA to help improve autonomous air freight transport

With the kind of leaps that the world is taking in the field of technology, the day isn’t far when autonomous vehicles and aircraft will take over in day to day transportation of passengers and cargo. We’re already seeing a number of autonomous vehicles in various use case scenarios in the supply chain industry, and going forward, they are going to eliminate/minimise the human effort required.

A concept gaining traction is that of autonomous aircraft like drones and air taxis for the purpose of delivering cargo. Deliveries by drones or robots are already being tested as well as commercially used across the globe.

A crucial part of carrying out such deliveries is the ability of these autonomous and unmanned devices to safely move the package(s) from source to destination. They need to be able to detect and avoid obstacles as well as other vehicles/aircraft.

In that field of work, NASA may be eager to help improvise autonomous air mobility. Back in February, NASA researchers visited the Mountain View, California headquarters of Reliable Robotics to observe flight testing and, collect and analyse surveillance radar data. This data may be used in detect and avoid systems that would support future autonomous flight in the advanced air mobility system. 

During the test, Reliable Robotics flew its Cessena 172 Skyhawk and 208 Caravan aircraft in preselected flight paths between Marina and Stockton in California. The radar and flight test data was retrieved with the help of Oklahoma University Advanced Radar Research Center’s engineers, Reliable Robotics, NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center and NASA’s Ames Research Center. This data will form the foundation for future research.

So how does an autonomous aircraft ensure safety? Like any ‘on-road’ robot, it is with the help of several sensors that the aircraft is able to avoid obstacles and other airborne elements. Out of the many sensors installed on these aircraft, some are sensitive to radar data, some to light, and some to acoustic, among other factors. It is also possible that a single sensor is sensitive to a combination of or all of these factors, to ensure flight safety. The data and analysis from this testing will help NASA researchers understand if primary radar can be used for detect-and-avoid systems to satisfy the rule’s safety intent.

“We appreciate the close collaboration with the FAA and Reliable Robotics to collect meaningful data from flights to improve our collective understanding of using radar for detect and avoid. These landmark flights will help the entire advanced air mobility industry further their understanding about how future use of primary surveillance radar data could enhance aviation safety.”

Brad Snelling, Chief Engineer for Partner Activities, NASA Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign

No clear certification or operating rules for detect and avoid systems have been established or finalized for advanced air mobility, but if refined and validated, such a model could be trusted and depended on by both industry and regulators to maintain safe flight operations.

NASA’s research for Advance Air Mobility aims to solve problems that prevent the industry to operate autonomous aircraft safely and effectively. It entails virtual tabletop exercises to plan for an automated airspace, testing real-time communications with surrogate vehicle flights, and developing potential flight paths in the simulator. The entire research should be complete by the end of 2023 and the results will be shared with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The analysis will complete a segment of Advanced Air Mobility research by NASA’s National Campaign team which focused on addressing several problems that must be solved for industry to operate safely and effectively. These efforts included 

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