NASA’s drone chief: Space agency is getting serious about drones

22 Oct 2015

An InstantEye unmanned aircraft system is operated in Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, California during Coastal Trident 2015 field experimentation and exercise activities. Photo via NASA

While everyone thinks of NASA as being all about rockets and space exploration, the US space agency is also pretty serious about drones and autonomous aviation, explains Parimal Kopardekar.

Kopardekar doesn’t beat around the bush when I ask him why NASA, which recently discovered evidence of water on Mars, is also big into drone technology right now.

“The first A in NASA stands for aeronautics.”

Kopardekar, or PK as he is known among colleagues, manages NASA’s Safe Autonomous System Operations project, which is focused on autonomy/autonomicity in civil aviation, as part of the Airspace Operations and Safety Program. He directs air-traffic-management-related research and manages the R&D portfolio.

The project’s goal is to develop gate-to-gate concepts and technologies aimed at improving aircraft and airspace efficiency, capacity, mobility, throughput, reduce delays, and overall airspace operations productivity.

“If you look at the history of NASA, we started with aeronautics a long time ago and aeronautics is still very much part of NASA, although space is far more visible in media coverage,” said Kopardekar.

“Our core area of focus is ‘how do we enable future operations safely in a world where autonomous vehicles are in the sky’? We don’t just research vehicle structures but also how we can make future vehicle concepts and technologies operate seamlessly in the same aerospace.”

PK was due to speak at the upcoming Data X conference in Westport in November but had to pull out due to work commitments. He agreed to do this interview anyway.

“We started to think about the potential emergence of drones a few years ago and we decided we needed to create a system where these drones can operate safely. In 1956, two aircraft collided over the Grand Canyon and since then NASA has always been interested in air traffic management systems. For the era of drones, we needed something similar in place but less human dependent and more autonomous.

“We think of it in the same way as the evolution of road transport. At first, no one knew what they were doing and there were horrific accidents and this led to the development of rules of the road, lanes, stop signs, etc.

“So for the drones era we decided we needed to create a digital, virtual structure that has flexibility where necessary.”

Connected autonomy

PK is not surprised drone technology has accelerated in just the last few years. He puts this down to the convergence or confluence of technologies like smartphones, bandwidth, cheaper electronics and more.

“This integration makes a big difference. Computing has become cheaper, this allows for onboard processing, and bandwidth is much faster.”

While companies like Amazon still toy with the idea of drone deliveries as an e-commerce channel, PK says that usage of drones for productive purposes is already accelerating in different industries, including agriculture, public services, gas and exploration.

“I think where this will ultimately lead to is applications like emergency response where drones can reach people faster than emergency services. They are already being used in applications like agriculture in harsh conditions and wildlife monitoring. For example, in remote locations drones can monitor herds instead of helicopters, which could cause a stampede in which young calves die. They are being used in industrial applications to monitor pipelines and they could be used to examine cellphone towers, which is safer and much more effective than sending an engineer up to do a visual inspection. There are lots of good examples where drones could be effective and even save lives.”


NASA drone doing solid waste inspection in Mojave desert

While drones are fascinating, for every person that is excited about their use there are others who fear for their privacy or a sky littered with aerial junk. I ask PK how countries should prepare themselves for a drone-based future?

“The potential for misuse is great, no doubt about that. But it’s the same with the internet, it has changed the world but its potential to be misused is well understood. I think focusing and encouraging the right type of applications where there is a huge benefit for humanity, whether it is public safety, deliveries, agriculture, inspection of assets and more [is the way to go]. I think if you look at the history of the car industry people had to learn how to use them and there will be a natural change and evolution.

“The onus is on the industry and the research powerhouses to show that it’s going to be safe to operate these vehicles in the sky and have a system in place to enable the entire airspace operation.

“We are agnostic to technology or any particular company, but what we are after is ensuring airspace operations for unmanned systems evolve.

“We focus on principles such as drones should not hit each other, that they stay away from manned vehicles, they should all be registered and that public safety ones have priority.

“This requires technology keeping pace in terms of creating geo-fenced areas where there are flight restrictions.

“But our focus is on a cloud-based system that autonomously manages itself and we see initial promise with technologies like that,” Kopardekar added.

The Data X Conference takes place in Westport on 6 November and will feature speakers from Facebook, Google and DJI who will discuss the impact of drone technology on our world

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years