When Jeff Bezos appeared on 60 Minutes and showed the world the Amazon Prime Air drone delivery system, a lot of skeptics called it a publicity stunt and said such technology was a very long way off, if it ever materialized at all. It seemed like science fiction.
But when it became clear Bezos was serious, the first questions most people had were “what is going to stop a drone from crashing into me? Or my house? Or another drone?”
How could this science fiction technology ever work without killing us all?
To solve science fiction problems, we need science fiction solutions.
Dr. Parimal Kopardekar is literally a rocket scientist: he has worked on numerous Airspace and Air Transportation Technology projects at NASA, was the recipient of the NASA Ames Honor Award for Engineer of the Year in 2003 and he is currently the Principal Investigator of the NASA’s NextGen Airspace Project.
One of his current projects is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Traffic Management System (UTM), or what we mortals would call a “highway in the sky.”
As daunting as such a project sounds, Dr. Kopardekar’s team is not starting from scratch. He explains:
The UTM construct is based on our research on the operator airspace; Class A,B,C and D. UTM is focused on Class G airspace because all of these operations will be in low altitudes. But the components of air space design – separation management, scheduling, demand capacity imbalance, contingency management [i.e. a 24-esqu hostile takeover], trajectory definition and prediction, wind and weather integration- that we have been working with for commercial carriers and upper airspace will be similar.
We need to make adjustments, for example, to the trajectory definition and prediction because UAS will fly slower and at lower altitude, with different susceptibility to wind etc. We are going to use the lessons learned from the work we have been doing for nearly 20 years and adapt it to UTM.
However, despite these lessons learned, Class G airspace (generally defined as under 1,200 feet above ground level) is roughly uncharted territory. Plus, human beings live in that airspace. As such, the aerial network will need to be incredibly precise.
So how do we safely accommodate these flying lawnmowers into the airspace above playgrounds and hospitals? By tapping into the so-called internet of things.
In order to accommodate low executed airspace operations we need a system. Right now there is no system. You can imagine how that could be chaos when everybody just starts to fly in the airspace.
It’s just like cars and roads; someone has to make sure that the cars have safety standards, that they won’t stop or turn in the middle of the road on their own. Once you do that, you say “how do I accommodate all the industries and folks who will be driving the cars?” You need roads, stop signs; you need lanes -one lane that goes one way and another lane that is coming back the other way. And that’s what we are after.
We are basically creating this UAS traffic management system that allows you to accommodate the number of vehicles that will operate in the low altitude airspace. The analogy is ‘just because we have a car, whether it’s an autonomous car or someone is driving, does not negate the need for a road or stop signs or rules of the road.’ The same thing happens in the airspace. We need to have a structure.
This is where Dr. Kopardekar’s UTM base comes in. The UTM system allows UAS operators to create a geo-fenced area (an area defined by GPS coordinates) to pilot their aircraft. By staying in the geo-fenced area, all movements and behaviors of the vehicle can be monitored and operators can program flights based on GPS location.
Here’s the fun part though: when you throw another UAS into the area (and/or a virtual skyscraper or playground full of children) the UAS then knows where everything is and operators can specify how close the drones are allowed to get to various obstacles or locations. Plus, because the trajectory of both aircraft are part of the “world’s first cloud-based aerial architecture” that is UTM, they both know where the other is and will be, even if a gust of wind were to interfere.
In that same vein, if the weather forecast is ominous (remember the threshold for bad weather with drones is much lower) or certain “lanes” are experiencing heavy traffic, UTM can compensate or just delay your flight. To anyone who has flown to or from Boston during the holidays, this concept should sound familiar.
So when will you get to see an actual demo of this modern marvel?
Our goal is to enable these operations within five years and we have a schedule for testing every 18 months starting in fiscal year 2015…Right now we are looking towards working with partners in testing the builds of folks who bring their own vehicles or low altitude radar, or radio frequency ground stations. We will bring our UTM builds and we will perform collective testing to demonstrate that, with the UTM base, we can operate these vehicles.
And these will be heterogenous vehicles. Some will want to do picture taking, some will want to do rescue missions and some will want to do deliveries. They all want to operate in the same airspace and we want to make sure all of these operations are done in a safe manner.
Dr. Kopardekar was careful to avoid any specific names, but from the examples he gave, one can imagine the companies that are signing up.
Again, no names were used, but he did mention:
We are looking to work with retailers who will be using UAVs that will do deliveries -online retailers, offline retailers… anybody and everybody interested in search and rescue operations, disaster relief operations, or surveillance for pipelines or key assets like railroads. We are also looking to work with partners that have built their own vehicles not necessarily to operate but then they build some kind of autopilot or sense and avoid technologies to use with it.
For example: There is still some research that needs to be done such as with the “last 50 feet” problem where vehicles can land and take off safely in the presence of moving objects, people and fixed objects on the ground. So, this requires detect and avoid technology not only for other vehicles, but also for other objects and people so that the vehicle can safely negotiate through the airspace or wait for things to be cleared.
That technology has to evolve so we can accommodate the future growth and needs of dropping things at people’s doorsteps in the presence of moving and fixed objects. But we don’t want to wait five years for this, want to start this now.
It may have to be on a warehouse-to-warehouse basis. If the “last 50 feet tech” doesn’t evolve fast enough that will limit its [drone delivery] use, but we think we can start these operations with the UTM base first.
If only there was a company chomping at the bit to use drones for delivery, with warehouses all over the country, and the money and resources to implement something like this…
It seems like that company would be a perfect match for Dr. Kopardekar and the whizzes at NASA.