From aiding in search and rescue operations, to helping save time, money, and even lives in industries including mining and construction, drones have proven to be beneficial in countless scenarios. However, the extent of their economic benefits cannot be realized until they can be flown autonomously without a pilot supervising every operation. NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Air Traffic Management (UTM) system is giving industry leaders the platform to demonstrate that multiple unmanned aircraft can operate simultaneously, and autonomously, in congested urban environments.

NASA, in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has just completed the final phase of its UTM to facilitate safe, autonomous drone operations in cities. This achievement was five years in the making. NASA was testing this concept in phases and the final one took place in Corpus Christi, Texas, on August 23rd.

Drone deliveries are currently being tested in the suburbs by huge conglomerates including Alphabet’s Wing and UPS. While it’s convenient, not to mention environmentally friendly, there has been a considerable amount of doubt placed on drone delivery scaling to include major cities. One of the biggest concerns is finding a safe place to land. Enter Pittsburgh-based company, Near Earth Autonomy, who provided NASA a drone with sensing + computing payload for handling contingencies requiring emergency autonomous landing.

Private industries have created UAS Service Supplier (USS) platforms to facilitate communication between drones and NASA’s UTM, which serves as oversight for airspace. Several companies supplied drones and pilots. Near Earth Autonomy’s drone consistently demonstrated its ability, over 25 test runs, to react to contingencies that required flying to the closest designated landing site along with locating a safe place to land. 

Flying beyond-visual-line-of-sight poses considerable risks including GPS-degradation, competing radio frequencies, blustery weather, and variable landing conditions. Near Earth Autonomy’s technology was able to navigate these obstacles, even when communication was lost during flights. 

These demonstrations, hosted by NASA, are critical for expanding drone deliveries and related commercial operations beyond a rural environment in low-altitude airspace. Says Sanjiv Singh, CEO of Near Earth, “The electric aerial vehicles that we enable to fly autonomously will make on-demand transport widely available while decreasing cost, congestion, and pollution.”

NASA plans on continuing these initiatives into 2020. In the meantime, they’re holding an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) Pilot Program (UPP) Phase 2 Industry Workshop in December. It takes place in Mountain View, California, and more information on the event, and how to participate, can be found here.

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