Mark Broadbent
By Mark Broadbent

Mark Broadbent is a freelance journalist specializing in aerospace and technology. He has written for numerous magazines and websites and became the assistant editor of Air International magazine 2014. He has covered a wide variety of topics across the aerospace industry spanning commercial aircraft, airline industry, unmanned, technology and historical subjects. Follow him on Twitter @mjbwriter.

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Near Earth Autonomy aims to make eVTOL aircraft intelligent

Near Earth Autonomy believes intelligent systems will be crucial in the future evolution of eVTOL platforms and urban air mobility.

Near Earth Autonomy drone
For NASA’s UTM demonstration in Corpus Christi, Texas, Near Earth Autonomy provided a drone with a sensing/computing payload for handling contingencies requiring emergency autonomous landing. Near Earth Autonomy Photo

The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based company develops and produces specialist sensors that enable aircraft to avoid obstacles and fly safely, even without GPS coverage.

Some of its payloads were recently tested in a demonstration in Corpus Christi in Texas, during the fifth and final stage of NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM) project.

This five-year initiative, which also involved the Federal Aviation Administration, other start-up developers, and tech giants Uber, Google, and Amazon, sought to research a future air traffic control system for emerging modes of transportation and delivery systems in urban environments.

Speaking to eVTOL.com, Sanjiv Singh, Near Earth Autonomy CEO and co-founder, said the NASA project intended to research how to ensure participating aircraft could be safely deconflicted, how potential deconfliction could be managed, and how to deal with emergencies.

He said: “We were specifically [tasked] to demonstrate how an aircraft can land safely in the case of an emergency, operating from A to B, [and] being merged into a scenario where multiple aircraft are working together.

“Our job was to demonstrate if an aircraft had a failure, how it would operate safely. We showed the aircraft could automatically land to a safe spot and verify it was the safest place to land through its onboard sensors.”

Near Earth Autonomy’s focus is to give aircraft, be they manned or unmanned, an ability to sense the world around them, recognize non-nominal situations, and ultimately react to changing events in real time.

Singh explained: “It starts with intelligently planning routes that are low-risk. The next step is avoiding static objects, then detecting other aircraft, flying safely even if GPS is interrupted, safe landing with contingency, instrumented landing, then finally safe landing.”

This thinking has driven the development of Near Earth Autonomy’s payloads, which are all designed to be highly applicable to flight operations in urban environments.

Near Earth Autonomy lidar terrain
Near Earth Autonomy’s drones evaluate landing sites through rapid three-dimensional reconstruction of terrain using onboard lidar. In the demonstration in Corpus Christi, Near Earth’s drone landed successfully over 25 times using the technique. Near Earth Autonomy Image

The company’s sensors include 3D terrain mapping and a collision detection and avoidance system that can identify and classify ground hazards such as trees and wires.

Other packages are geometric and semantic sensors that automatically recommend landing areas that are free from ground obstructions or other potential hazards, and algorithms that work out detailed flight paths for safe and efficient operations.

There are high-fidelity 3D models of environments and a sensor for GPS denied navigation, which uses terrain databases to localize an aircraft when GPS fails.

Further sensors provide relative navigation — which enables multiple air vehicles to fly close together and automated docking operations — and visual pilot aids that create a 3D view of the environment around an aircraft and let a pilot identify hazards in blind spots or those that are too small to be seen with the human eye.

Singh said Near Earth Autonomy is focused on showing operators how all these technologies “can be rapidly integrated with customer aircraft.”

These systems are all designed to provide a high level of intelligence for aircraft operating in urban areas. Talking about the benefits, Singh drew a comparison with the urban ground mobility sector. He said: “You could not imagine a self-driving car [driving] around one city block without it being able to sense its environment. Nobody even questions that; the vehicle has to be conscious.”

Similarly, he said: “If you want to fly at low altitudes and in national airspace where ditching is not an option if you’re carrying passengers in urban spaces, you have to deal with all the things that are non-nominal.”

Near Earth Autonomy’s focus is therefore to develop systems that give aircraft such a high level of intelligence that they can automatically respond to events during a flight as would a pilot in a conventional aircraft.

Singh said: “You need extremely high reliability, extremely high capability, and you want it to be economically viable. This is a challenge the whole industry faces, and we have to realize that autonomy is going to be a key part of getting all three.”

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