NASA Tests Air Taxi Autonomous Flight With Drones

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Researchers at Virginia’s NASA Langley Research Center have conducted successful flights of several drones to evaluate the autonomous flying abilities of air taxis.

In Washington, NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia has made a breakthrough with drones demonstrating autonomous flight capabilities essential for air taxis. These drones were operated beyond the visual line of sight, a key step forward in air taxi technology. The drones autonomously navigated around obstacles and each other during takeoff, flight, and landing without pilot intervention, marking a significant advance in autonomous flying technology for air taxis.

Lou Glaab, leader of the aeronautics systems engineering branch at NASA Langley, stated that flying drones beyond the visual line of sight—without direct human observation of the vehicle or airspace—reflects extensive research into automation and safety systems. This involved special permissions from the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA. Using smaller drones for testing self-flying technology, intended for larger air taxis, is safer and more cost-effective. This method allows close monitoring of the drones’ collision avoidance capabilities.

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NASA is also enhancing automation technology with helicopter tests. These surrogate aircraft are key in improving autonomy technologies before integrating self-flying air taxis into commercial airspace.

The team successfully completed several flights with ALTA 8 Uncrewed Aircraft Systems, or drones, using “NOVO-BVLOS” (non-observer visual line of sight) flights without visual observers.  The drones had software for airspace communication, navigated flight paths, and executed avoidance manoeuvres with other vehicles, which is vital for operation in busy airspace. This development is crucial for the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) ecosystem, where drones and air taxis will commonly share airspace.

NASA aims to publicly share this technology, enabling industry manufacturers to integrate it into their vehicle designs. Jake Schaefer, the project’s flight operations leader, mentioned that transferring these technologies to the industry will be highly beneficial. Schaefer noted that conducting flight tests in national airspace, near airports, and in urban settings allows the evaluation of technologies and procedures in environments relevant to future AAM vehicles.

The team used ICAROURS (Integrated Configurable Architecture for Reliable Operations of Unmanned Systems), software providing autonomous detect-and-avoid functionality vital for maintaining safe distances from other air traffic. Another key technology used was NASA’s Safe2Ditch system, enabling autonomous selection of the safest emergency landing spots based on ground observations. NASA’s AAM mission involves several projects, each contributing to different research areas. This specific project, High-Density Vertiplex, focused on operating future vehicles in high-frequency takeoff and landing zones, known as vertiports or vertiplexes, and the technology needed for their success.

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