NASA ponders $1.5M drone challenge

NASA wants unmanned aircraft that can maneuver in busy airspace and may launch a $1.5 million competition to help bring such drones to life.

Drones — already used by the Pentagon in Afghanistan  — could have many other military and civilian uses if they are able to fly and maneuver in congested air corridors. That’s the problem the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge (UAS AOC, for short) would address.

If this effort – part of NASA’s Centennial Challenge series – proceeds, NASA would request designs that use “sense-and-avoid” techniques to fly safely. Current drones are typically operated at least in part by remote “pilots” on the ground. Here’s NASA’s official Request for Information (RFI)And, NetworkWorld has more on the proposed competition here.

The challenge would help NASA and its partners – the FAA and US Air Force Research Lab – assess the level of interest among manufacturers, get feedback, and identify possible partners in the effort.

There’s already considerable research and commercial effort around drones:

  • An unmanned vehicle designed at MIT’s Robust Robotics lab that uses on-board sensors to avoid collisions in constricted areas — including an MIT garage — might be something NASA would look at.
  • Rotary Robotics, a Mass Challenge participant, is working on “drones for peace” — small unmanned vehicles that reporters could use to research stories or farmers to get a bird’s-eye view of their land.

The use of drones in military and law enforcement contexts is controversial:

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Jordan Tan