White House, NSF, NASA tout ambitious drone application plans

NSF devotes $35M to bolster safety of commercial unmanned aircraft


The National Science Foundation will devote $35 million in research funding over the next five years to accelerate the safe, intelligent, design and control of unmanned aircraft applications.

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The announcement was part of a wide-ranging White House Office of Science and Technology Policy proclamation to, as it said, promote the safe integration and innovative adoption of unmanned aircraft systems across the United States.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is today hosting a workshop on “Drones and the Future of Aviation.”

Other actions announced today include:

  • A broad range of actions by the U.S. Department of the Interior to use UAS to support search and rescue operations, to augment manned aircraft operations, and improve government processes around technological adoption.
  • A $5 million down-payment by the state of New York to support the growth of the emerging unmanned aircraft systems industry across New York.
  • A collective commitment made by UAS industry associations to implement a broad educational effort around privacy best practices for users of UAS technology, among other private-sector commitments to support UAS technologies.

Also on the drone front, NASA said it would:

  • Initiate new research to inform development of standards for Detect and Avoid and Command and Control for UAS: NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate will initiate new research in FY 2017 to inform development of new standards for detect and avoid and command and control technologies. This research, planned for completion by FY 2020, will include simulations and human-in-the-loop tests. The tests will occur in coordination with the RTCA and industry and government partners.
  • Launch a joint NASA and FAA data exchange working group: NASA and the FAA are launching a data exchange working group under the UAS Traffic Management Research Transition Team to address the challenge of coordinating information between operators, entities that use UTM to perform services, and the FAA. This group will develop a consistent format for data to be shared across the affected parties with recommendations slated for release in FY 2017. The specifications will increase operational safety by providing information to the operators and FAA air traffic management systems consistently and quickly.
  • Expand existing capabilities through enhanced technology and training: The Department of the Interior which manages one-fifth of all land in the United States, has used unmanned aircraft systems since 2009 to conduct wildlife and vegetation surveys, to protect endangered populations, perform archeological studies, assist in emergency response, conduct wildfire management on a 24-hour-a-day basis, and more.

The Department of Interior said it would:

  • Use unmanned aircraft systems for search-and-rescue operations: DOI will develop and maintain a training program for the use of UAS in Search and Rescue by October 2018. This program will allow DOI first responders to rapidly deploy unmanned aircraft technology in critical search-and-rescue situations.
  • Develop UAS for augmenting manned aircraft missions: By December 2017, DOI will develop payloads that have traditionally been carried aboard manned aircraft for UAS. This will augment the manned aircraft fleet and result in cost-savings and reduced risk to departmental personnel.
  • Rapidly prototype and approval of new UAS payloads: DOI will develop a process for the rapid prototyping and approval of new UAS payloads for its fleet by January 2018. This will allow for quick access to new sensor technology for users in the field as technology advances.
  • Implementing rapid data processing capabilities: UAS-collected data often requires post-mission processing before it can be used directly by the end user. DOI will find innovative solutions for rapid processing of data into usable products for scientists, first responders, and land managers. By FY 2019, DOI will have in place procedures for rapid data processing of UAS-acquired data using the cloud. This will dramatically reduce the time needed to process imagery at a local office.
  • Increase data sharing of wildland fire locations: DOI will share near-real-time fire location information with the public by July 2017 as part of a multi-faceted effort to prevent unauthorized drone incursions over active wildfires. Building upon DOI’s 2016 prototype wildland fire location data sharing initiative with three volunteer industry partners, this expanded data sharing initiative will further reduce the risk​​ of drone incursions that jeopardize the safety of wildland firefighters.

“The announcements released today include actions that expand the Federal Government’s capacity to use unmanned aircraft operations to advance agency and department missions and accelerate research discoveries related to airspace integration, and private actions to enhance mobility, expand participation, and promulgate privacy best practices,” the White House office stated.

These efforts will enable advances in inspection of critical infrastructure, protection of endangered species and habitats, delivery operations that will increase accessibility to remote communities, suppression of wildfires, enhanced emergency response operations, and ever-more capable unmanned aircraft platforms to gather critical data to help protect and further explore the world, the White House stated.

“Unmanned aerial systems have the potential to totally revolutionize our economy and way of life. On an experimental basis, drones are already helping to transport medicine and supplies to underserved and remote communities, supporting first responders in fighting wildfires and mounting search-and-rescue efforts, boosting agriculture and environmental protection, and much more. We need to be looking at how we can more broadly and safely integrate drones into American airspace, both right now and for the future,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) in a statement.

Virginia is home to one of the six FAA sites that is testing drone integration into US airspace.

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