Near Earth, NASA making first, last 50 ft of UAS flight safer

By Luke Geiver | June 09, 2016

Near Earth Autonomy has been awarded $754,000 from NASA to help develop a system to safely navigate an unmanned aircraft system during the first and last 50 feet of the take-off or landing phase. According to Sanjiv Singh, CEO of the Carnegie Mellon University spin-off, NASA’s Unmanned Traffic Management team identified the first and last 50 feet of flight as an area in need of research. “There is a lot of complexity in that space,” Singh said. “That is where GPS can be most unreliable.”

Through NASA’s small business innovation research program, Near Earth will spend the next two years working through a series of experiments and test flights to develop a Safe50 software module that will allow take-offs and landings to be performed without the use of GPS. “Safe50 will accurately guide the UAS from take-off to landing in a fully autonomous manner, outside of the operator’s visual line of sight, without a direct link with a base station, and with intermittent GPS reception,” the company said.

The early work will focus on the perception part, Singh said, or the process of taking data from a suite of sensors—including optical, LIDAR and an onboard processor—and making sense out of the information. Following the perception element of the work, the team will work to develop the planning part of the Safe50 software. Planning tells the unmanned aircraft vehicle what to do or how to stay safe after percepted data has been received and processed.

Demonstrating the capability to perform autonomous flight with sense-and-avoid capabilities is nothing new for Near Earth. The company has worked in the commercial and defense sectors since 2013. Through its work on AACUS—or landing full-scale autonomous rotorcraft in an austere, possibly hostile landing zone, in a tactical manner, with minimal human assistance—Near Earth has proven it can equip a rotorcraft with a suite of sensors and perform autonomous missions beyond visual line of sight in difficult flying conditions. The company is currently under contract with the Office of Navy Research’s Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System to develop sensors allowing for full-size cargo in unprepared terrain. With DARPA, the company is also working on miniature optical guidance and navigation for small- and medium-sized UAVs.

According to Singh, his team has previously demonstrated a mock casualty evacuation with an autonomous helicopter. The idea, he said, was to show that you could have such a vehicle to pick up casualties without putting other people at risk.

In addition to its current work with NASA on Safe50, the company is working to provide aerial inspection services through the use of its own group of unmanned aircraft vehicles, including both multirotor and fixed wings. For the military, Near Earth is working on cargo delivery and landing aircraft on ships.