NASA’s and other Advances in Autonomous UAS Research

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NASA’s aeronautical research has focused to see what operational, economic and safety benefits can support the development of UASs. A primary goal is to find the technical solution to the critical sense-and-avoid (SAA) system, which is required by the FAA before any drones can be integrated into the national airspace system (NAS).

NASA seems to be doing everything it can to help its aviation teammate, the FAA, define a solution to this impediment to the developing UAS market. The FAA must address SAA and other similar issues in order to define the complex regulations required. In an effort to do so, the FAA commissioned 6 UAS test sites around the US and intends to establish a Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems by late 2015. NASA, the DoD and private industry are pursuing other solutions needed for implementation of the biggest technological advancement since the Internet: autonomous UASs.

General Atomics, NASA and Honeywell have most promising prediction so far: 2018

This team sponsored the first ever SSA air-to-air collision avoidance testing between two UASs last November and December, which was a complete success with not one unexpected event.

Based on 5 weeks, 170 encounters and 50 hours of flight data, the results have done 3 things:

· proved this concept can work;

· aided in the development of the FAA funded Airborne Collision Avoidance System for Unmanned Aircraft (ACAS Xu), which has been ongoing since 2008 to replace T-CAS;

· and undoubtedly encouraged the FAA to continue investing in this technology.

The prototype SSA system used was aboard NASA’s Ikhana (Choctaw Native American word for intelligent, conscious or aware), a Predator B without the missiles. The program scheduled to conduct final flight tests in 2016, at which time, is anticipated that the system will meet or exceed RTCA’s technical standards. The results should provide the FAA with the data to create manufacturing standards. Chuck Johnson, NASA’s senior adviser for unmanned and autonomous systems, said these tests suggested the most promising regulatory prediction we’ve heard thus far: larger drones might be ready to fly in commercial airspace by 2018.

The prototype uses three sensors: the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), a transponder that detects other ADS-Bs; the traffic collision avoidance system (T-CAS); and the Due Regard Radar (DRR – the first radar designed for remotely piloted aircraft), which is an air-to-air radar that detects aircrafts without any form of sensory communication. Sensor fusion algorithms developed by Honeywell combine information from each sensor telling the UAS how to maneuver away from oncoming aircraft.

NASA’s UAS traffic management system for commercial use

In a more encompassing endeavor, NASA is attempting to come up with a UAS traffic management (UTM) system to help (convince?) the FAA implement commercial use of drones, which is currently limited to operators with FAA exemptions awaiting a more formal, comprehensive final set of rules.

The first company to partner in NASA’s effort is Airware, a San Francisco developer of drone operating software. Their goals are to find ways for commercial drones to safely fly themselves, and ultimately, have commercial drone operators file flight plans ensuring no one else will be using the same airspace, much like manned air traffic systems.

To help make that a reality, NASA plans on mapping and creating “geofences” around objects like buildings that drones will automatically avoid, and envisions specialized highways or corridors for commercial drones to operate in. It is also speculated that NASA is consulting with Google and Amazon on how to best use this technology as they are both leaders in the commercial UAS industry. Jesse Kallman, Airware’s head of business development and regulatory affairs, said this endeavor won’t be complete for at least another 4 or 5 years.

DoD’s ground and airborne SAA system

A SAA system is following the path of other significant technological advances: created for the military then disseminated down to commercial and household use.

USMC has taken a foothold in UAS technology with ground based SAA (GBSAA), and is operating the first certified GBSAA system at MCAS Cherry Point. In conjunction with DoD, NASA and the FAA, the VMU (Marine Unmanned Vehicle) community will continue to develop standards and procedures for UAS integration in the NAS.

As for other branches of the DoD, the USAF has been operating a GBSAA system to support operations at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico since mid-2014. A fully developed common GBSAA capability that allows UAVs to operate in the vicinity of other aircraft is scheduled to be in use by the Pentagon in FY 2015 when the Army certifies and fields a GBSAA system at five GA-ASI MQ-1C Gray Eagle operating locations.

The USAF is also leading development of a common airborne SAA (ABSAA) capability for the military, which has been in testing since 2005 where the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) initiated the SAA Flight Test and Multiple Intruder Autonomous Avoidance (MIAA) programmes. The MIAA effort has advanced to the point of demonstrating an integrated automatic SAA capability.

Active list of NASA’s UAV related Space Act Agreements


Development of operational criteria to allow UAS in Class G (Low Altitude Airspace) (9/2014 – 9/2019)

DZYNE Technologies

Aircraft System Testing and training (7/2014 – 7/2017)

University of North Dakota

R&D of aerospace technologies for unmanned aerial systems (7/2014 – 7/2017)


Autonomous vehicle operations, concepts, and technologies to enable new capabilities in air transportation (6/2014 – 6/2019)

Crisis mapping project (4/2014 – 4/2017)

Might be used to help create NASA’s UAS traffic management system?

Planetary content project (4/2014 – 4/2017)

Might be used to help create NASA’s UAS traffic management system?

Dragonfly Pictures, Inc.

R&D of aerospace technologies for unmanned aircraft (5/2014 – 5/2019)

Unmanned aircraft system certification study (5/2014 – 5/2017)

Unmanned Systems International Corporation

Supporting USIC airship technology maturation (12/2013 – 12/2018)

Computational vehicle systems analysis support (12/2013 – 12/2015)

Space Systems/Loral, LLC

Autonomous systems and robotics (12/2013 – 12/2015)

Crescent Unmanned Systems, LLC

Unknown, but Crescent manufactures advanced unmanned aircraft systems for government and commercial applications (1/2012 – 1/2017)

UAV Collaborative

Unmanned aerial systems for applications in the NAS (7/2008 – 7/2018)

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