Sunday, February 25, 2024

NASA flies drones to test self-flying capabilities for air taxis

Researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, announced this week that they flew multiple drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) with no visual observer.

The drones successfully flew around obstacles and each other during takeoff, along a planned route, and upon landing, all autonomously without a pilot controlling the flight. This is a significant achievement towards developing self-flying capabilities for air taxis.

“Flying the vehicles beyond visual line of sight, where neither the vehicle nor the airspace is monitored using direct human observation, demonstrates years of research into automation and safety systems, and required specific approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA to complete,” said Lou Glaab, branch head for the aeronautics systems engineering branch at NASA Langley.

Testing self-flying technology on smaller drones is safer and more cost-effective before putting it into larger, passenger-carrying air taxis. This allows researchers to observe how the drones avoid obstacles and each other, which is crucial for the safety of passengers and other people in the air.

Additionally, NASA is testing elements of automation technology for self-flying air taxis using helicopters. These helicopters serve as stand-in aircraft to help NASA mature the autonomy of the technology well before self-flying air taxis are integrated into the skies.

“When you have multiple vehicles, all coming and going from a vertiport that is located adjacent to an airport or deep within a community, we have to ensure the automation technologies of these vehicles are capable of safely handling a high volume of air traffic in a busy area,” said Glaab.

The team was able to perform multiple flights using purchased ALTA 8 Uncrewed Aircraft Systems, also known as drones, with no visual observer and flew them beyond the visual line of sight, referred to as “NOVO-BVLOS” flights.

The software loaded onto these small drones performed airspace communications, flight path management, avoidance with other vehicles, and other necessary skills to operate in a busy airspace. This is particularly important for Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), where drones and air taxis will be operating at the same time routinely.

The flight tests were observed from NASA Langley’s Remote Operations for Autonomous Missions control center while the drones took off and landed at the City Environment for Testing Autonomous Integrated Navigation test range. The tests still required approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to be conducted.

NASA will transfer the new technology created during this project to the public to ensure industry manufacturers can access the software while designing their vehicles.

“NASA’s ability to transfer these technologies will significantly benefit the industry,” said Jake Schaefer, flight operations lead for the project. “By conducting flight tests within the national airspace, in close proximity to airports and an urban environment, we are able to test technologies and procedures in a controlled but relevant environment for future AAM vehicles.”

One such technology is ICAROURS, which stands for NASA’s Integrated Configurable Architecture for Reliable Operations of Unmanned Systems. This software provides an autonomous detect-and-avoid function and is part of the overall system to maintain “well clear” from other air traffic.

Another interesting technology used is NASA’s Safe2Ditch system, which allows the vehicle to observe the ground below and make an autonomous decision on the safest place to land in the event of an in-flight emergency.