Achieving Self-Flying Capabilities for air Taxis: A Milestone for NASA

NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia has recently achieved a major breakthrough in the development of self-flying capabilities for air taxis. Through a series of tests conducted in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the research team successfully demonstrated the ability of multiple drones to fly autonomously beyond visual line of sight, without the need for a human pilot. This achievement marks a significant milestone in the advancement of automation and safety systems for air transportation.

Advancing Automation and Safety Systems

The project involved flying drones beyond visual line of sight, a scenario where neither the vehicle nor the airspace is monitored through direct human observation. This required years of research into automation and safety systems, as well as specific approval from both the FAA and NASA. By conducting flights without a visual observer, the team was able to assess the capabilities of the self-flying technology and observe how the drones interacted with each other and navigated around obstacles.

Ensuring Safety in Air Traffic

Testing self-flying technology on smaller drones is safer and more cost-effective than using larger, passenger-carrying air taxis. These smaller drones provide valuable insights into how the technology can handle a high volume of air traffic in busy areas, such as vertiports located adjacent to airports or within communities. NASA recognizes the importance of ensuring the automation technologies of these vehicles can operate safely and effectively in such environments.

The team leveraged helicopters as stand-in aircraft to test elements of automation technology. These helicopters helped NASA refine the autonomy of the self-flying system well before the integration of air taxis into the skies. By testing the capabilities of the system in a controlled environment, NASA can ensure that the vehicles can handle the complexities of real-world scenarios and safely operate alongside other air traffic.

The NOVO-BVLOS Flights

Building upon previous tests, the team conducted multiple flights using ALTA 8 Uncrewed Aircraft Systems, also known as drones, with no visual observer. These flights, referred to as “NOVO-BVLOS” flights, required the software loaded onto the drones to perform various essential tasks, such as airspace communications, flight path management, and avoidance of other vehicles. These flights demonstrate the readiness of the technology for the future of Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), where drones and air taxis will operate simultaneously in busy airspace.

The flight tests were closely observed from NASA Langley’s Remote Operations for Autonomous Missions control center. The drones took off and landed at the City Environment for Testing Autonomous Integrated Navigation test range. NASA plans to transfer the technology developed during this project to the public, allowing industry manufacturers to access the software and incorporate it into their own designs. This collaboration with the industry will significantly benefit the advancement of self-flying technologies.

Two key technologies were utilized during the project. Firstly, ICAROURS (NASA’s Integrated Configurable Architecture for Reliable Operations of Unmanned Systems) provided an autonomous detect-and-avoid function. This system helps the drones maintain a safe distance from other air traffic, ensuring their safe operation within crowded airspace. Secondly, NASA’s Safe2Ditch system enabled the drones to autonomously observe the ground below and make informed decisions on the safest place to land in the event of an in-flight emergency.

NASA’s AAM mission encompasses multiple projects that contribute to various research areas. The High Density Vertiplex project, in particular, focuses on testing and evaluating the locations where future air taxis will take off and land. These high-frequency vertiports, or vertiplexes, will be crucial for the efficient operation of air taxis in urban areas. The success of this project brings NASA one step closer to achieving the vision of a robust and safe air transportation system.

NASA’s recent achievement in conducting self-flying flights with drones beyond visual line of sight represents a significant milestone in the development of autonomous air taxis. By leveraging automation and safety systems, NASA is paving the way for the future integration of air taxis into the busy airspace. Through collaboration with the FAA and industry manufacturers, NASA aims to transfer the technology and knowledge gained from this project to accelerate the progress towards safe and efficient air transportation. With continued advancements in automation and safety, the vision of Advanced Air Mobility is becoming closer to reality.


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