NASA exploring $1.5 million unmanned aircraft competition

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

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."

NASA on the Challenge: "Each competitor will be required to deploy and operate their UAS on a relatively tight schedule to avoid disrupting the UAS AOC schedule and negatively impacting other challenge competitors. Every event that requires a competitor to fly their aircraft for scoring is called a 'mission.'  The five distinct segments of a mission are: aircraft launch, pre-4DT loiter, 4DT flight, post-4DT loiter, and aircraft recovery.  This structure enables surrounding air traffic to be created using a combination of real and virtual aircraft working synchronously to create specific scenarios for the competitors.

Prior to each mission, competitors must declare several details about their aircraft and how they intend to operate it. Chief among these is their preferred cruise speed for their aircraft. This cruise speed is used to establish the overall size of the geo-fence, the waypoint hit radius, and other characteristics of the 4DT that will define the missions assigned to them. Tailoring the size of the course to the capabilities of each competing UAV, while keeping event timing for the sometimes-complex mission scenarios constant, will enable fair competition between UAS that vary significantly in size and performance. Required air traffic separation distances will be chosen to capture important scale effects inherent in operating different classes of aircraft."

More details and rules of the competition are spelled out here.

NASA said in the past its Centennial Challenges program is designed to get to get what it calls "unconventional solutions from non-traditional sources." It also hopes to identify new tech talent and stimulate the creation of new businesses. Unlike contracts and grants based on proposals, prizes are only awarded after competitors have successfully demonstrated their innovations.

A recent round of Challenges included:

  • The Sample Return Robot Challenge is to demonstrate a robot that can locate and retrieve geologic samples from wide and varied terrain without human control. This challenge has a prize purse of $1.5 million. The objectives are to encourage innovations in automatic navigation and robotic manipulator technologies.
  • The Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge is to place a small satellite into Earth orbit, twice in one week, with a prize of $2 million. The goals of this challenge are to stimulate innovations in low-cost launch technology and encourage creation of commercial nano-satellite delivery services.
  • The Night Rover Challenge is to demonstrate a solar-powered exploration vehicle that can operate in darkness using its own stored energy. The prize purse is $1.5 million. The objective is to stimulate innovations in energy storage technologies of value in extreme space environments, such as the surface of the moon, or for electric vehicles and renewable energy systems on Earth.

Last year NASA awarded what it called the largest prize in aviation history to, a company that flew their aircraft 200 miles in less than two hours on less than one gallon of fuel or electric equivalent. The aircraft known as the Taurus G4 was a twin fuselage aircraft that featured a 145 kW electric motor, lithium-ion batteries, and retractable landing gear.

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While safely flying unmanned aircraft in the nation's airspace hasn't been listed as a grand challenge just yet, scientists and researchers at DARPA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently put out a public call for ideas that could form what they call the Grand Challenges - ambitious yet achievable goals that that would herald serious breakthroughs in science and technology.

In defining what the government groups are looking for, Thomas Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said that while there might not be universally accepted definition of what constitutes a Grand Challenge, they typically do have certain attributes including: 

  • They can have a major impact in domains such as health, energy, sustainability, education, economic opportunity, national security, or human exploration.
  • They are ambitious but achievable. Proposing to end scarcity in five years is certainly ambitious, but it is not achievable. As Arthur Sulzberger put it, "I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out."
  • Grand Challenges are compelling and intrinsically motivating. They should capture the public's imagination. Many people should be willing to devote a good chunk of their career to the pursuit of one of these goals.
  • Grand Challenges have a "Goldilocks" level of specificity and focus. "Improving the human condition" is not a Grand Challenge because it does not provide enough guidance for what to do next. One of the virtues of a goal like "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth" is that it is clear whether it has been achieved. Grand Challenges should have measurable targets for success and timing of completion. On the other hand, a Grand Challenge that is too narrowly defined may assume a particular technical solution and reduce the opportunity for new approaches.
  • Grand Challenges can help drive and harness innovation and advances in science and technology. I certainly do not want to argue that technology is going to solve all of our problems. But it can be a powerful tool, particularly when combined with social, financial, policy, institutional and business model innovations.

As for flying drones safely in the national airspace, a recent report from the Government Accountability Office lists the sense and avoid challenge a critical safety issue that must be addressed. From the GAO:

"The inability for unmanned aircraft to detect, sense, and avoid other aircraft and airborne objects in a manner similar to "see and avoid" by a pilot in a manned aircraft. To date, no suitable technology has been deployed that would provide unmanned systems with the capability to sense and avoid other aircraft and airborne objects and to comply completely with FAA regulatory requirements of the national airspace system. However, research and development efforts by FAA, DOD, NASA, and MITRE, among others, suggests that potential solutions to the sense and avoid obstacle may be available in the near term. With no pilot to scan the sky, most UAS do not have an on-board capability to directly 'see' other aircraft. Consequently, unmanned aircraft must possess the capability to sense and avoid an object using on-board equipment, or within the line-of-sight of a human on the ground or in a chase aircraft, or by other means, such as ground-based sense and avoid.

 Since 2008, FAA and other federal agencies have managed several research activities to support meeting the sense and avoid requirements. DOD officials said the Department of the Army is working on a ground-based system that will detect other airborne objects and allow the pilot to direct the UAS to maneuver to a safe location. The Army has successfully tested one system, but it may not be useable on all types of drones."

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