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NASA exploring $1.5 million unmanned aircraft competition

NASA unmanned challenge would focus on sense and avoid, among other hot drone issues

By Layer 8 on Wed, 10/17/12 - 12:53pm.

NASA today said it wants to gage industry interest in the agency holding one of its patented Centennial Challenges to build the next cool unmanned aircraft.

NASA said it is planning this Challenge in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force Research Lab, with NASA providing the prize purse of up to $1.5 million. The purpose of this exploration or Request For Information is to:

  • Determine the unmanned aircraft community's level of interest in competing in this Challenge,
  • Gather feedback on the draft rules (see below for a link)
  • Identify potential partners interested in (a) providing a venue for the flight competition, as well as assisting NASA in managing and executing this Challenge which may include qualification of potential competitors.

The type of challenge NASA said it is envisioning would be no easy task as it is looking to address one of the more complicated drone issues - sensing and avoiding other aircraft. 

BACKGROUND: What the drone invasion looks like

"NASA is considering initiation of an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge (UAS AOC or Challenge) focused on finding innovative solutions to the problems surrounding the integration of UAS into the National Airspace System. The approach being considered would require competitors to maintain safe separation from other air traffic while operating their UAS in congested airspace, under a variety of scenarios. This will be accomplished through the use of sense and avoid technologies, as envisioned in the Next Generation Air Transportation System," NASA said.

NASA said the Challenge would be divided into two parts.  The Level 1 Competition - with a $500,000 purse -- "would focus on a competitors ability to fly 4-Dimensional Trajectories to provide a reasonable expectation that the drones will be where they are supposed to be, when they are scheduled to be there, successfully employ Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), maintain safe separation from other ADS-B equipped air traffic, and operate safely in a number of contingency situations. ADS-B in equipped aircraft are able to receive messages broadcast from other aircraft and the air traffic management system that describe the current position, heading, and speed of nearby air traffic."

The Level 2 Competition - with a $1 million purse -- would go beyond the first level and add a "requirement to maintain safe separation from air traffic not equipped with ADS-B and a requirement that the vehicle be able to communicate verbally with the Air Traffic Control system under lost link conditions. Competitors would be required to have a working Hardware-in-the-Loop Simulation for their flight vehicle. The HiLSim would be used at the beginning of the competition, prior to flight, to verify that a competing UASs flight operators, ground software, and flight software exhibit the proper responses in a variety of safety-critical situations. It would also be used to verify that a team is capable of performing the basic tasks required by the competition. HiLSim test suites would be provided prior to the competition to allow competitors to verify they are in compliance with contest requirements during development."