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Enabling Aircraft Autonomy

Description:

Scope Title:

Enabling Aircraft Autonomy

Scope Description:

The increased use of automation on aircraft offers significant advantages over traditional manned aircraft for applications that are dangerous to humans, long in duration, and/or require a fast response and high degree of precision. Some examples include remote sensing, wildfire and disaster response, delivery of goods, industrial inspection, and agricultural support. Advanced autonomous functions in aircraft can enable greater capabilities and promise greater economic and operational advantages. Some of these advantages include a higher degree of resilience to off-nominal conditions, the ability to adapt to dynamic situations, and less reliance on humans during operations.

There are many barriers that are restricting greater use and application of autonomy in air vehicles. These barriers include, but are not limited to, the lack of methods, architectures, and tools that enable:

  • Cognition and multi-objective decision making.
  • Cost-effective, resilient, and self-organizing communications.
  • Prognostics, survivability, and fault tolerance.
  • Verification and validation technology and certification approaches.

NASA and the aviation industry are involved in research that would greatly benefit from breakthroughs in autonomous capabilities that could eventually enable the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) Mission. Consider these three examples:

  1. Remote missions utilizing one or more unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have a need for autonomous planning algorithms that can coordinate and execute a mission with minimal human oversight.
  2. Efforts to enable AAM and to integrate UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS) have a need for detect-and-avoid algorithms, sensor fusion techniques, robust trajectory planners, and contingency management systems.
  3. Autonomous contingency management systems have a need for fault detection, diagnostics, and prognostics capabilities.

This subtopic is intended to address these needs with innovative and high-risk research, enabling greater use of autonomy in NASA research, civil aviation, and ultimately the emerging AAM market. In order to better address each research area, this subtopic will have rotating focus areas for each year.

The primary focus of the subtopic for this solicitation is cognition and multi-objective decision making. Any submission must show a strong relevance to this research area to be considered.

Specifically, NASA is seeking technologies (e.g., algorithms, sensor packages) that transform the raw data into actionable information and then make decisions based on this information. The raw data utilized should be key to the autonomous system's situational awareness, such as the environment during flight or other vehicles that could interact with the UAS. The technologies would then use the resulting information to create actions (such as a turning maneuver) that an autonomous UAS could follow.

Some examples of challenges and areas of interest include:

  • Detect, recognize, and avoid in the National Airspace System (NAS) by utilizing multiple sensors. These technologies are needed to ensure safety of flight in dense environments such as a city and as the number of vehicles (manned and unmanned) in the airspace increases. 
  • In-flight trajectory/mission rerouting and planning. These technologies enable more fully autonomous systems that would be able to accomplish their missions or tasks while accounting for factors such as changes in the environment or interaction with other systems.
  • Novel approaches to cognition and multi-objective decision making using an artificial-intelligence-based method such as machine learning are also encouraged.

Delivery of prototypes is expected by the end of Phase II. Prototype deliverables such as toolboxes, integrated hardware prototypes, training databases, or development/testing environments would allow for better possible infusion of the proposed technology into current and future NASA programs and projects.

It is important to note that any proposals for UAS aircraft development will not be considered.

Expected TRL or TRL Range at completion of the Project: 3 to 6

Primary Technology Taxonomy:

  • Level 1 10 Autonomous Systems
  • Level 2 10.2 Reasoning and Acting

Desired Deliverables of Phase I and Phase II:

  • Analysis
  • Prototype
  • Hardware
  • Software
  • Research

Desired Deliverables Description:

Phase I deliverables should include, but are not limited to:

  • A technology demonstration in a simulation environment that clearly shows the benefits of the technology developed.
  • A final report clearly stating the technology challenge addressed, the state of the technology before the work was begun, the state of technology after the work was completed, the innovations that were made during the work period, the remaining barriers in the technology challenge, and a plan to overcome the remaining barriers.
  • A written plan to continue the technology development and/or to infuse the technology. This may be part of the final report.

Phase II deliverables should include, but are not limited to:

  •  A useable/workable prototype of the technology (or software program), such as toolboxes, integrated hardware prototypes, training databases, or development/testing environments.
  • A technology demonstration in a relevant flight environment that clearly shows the benefits of the technology developed.
  • A final report clearly stating the technology challenge addressed, the state of the technology before the work was begun, the state of technology after the work was completed, the innovations that were made during the work period, the remaining barriers in the technology challenge, and a plan to overcome the remaining barriers.
  • There should be evidence of infusing the technology or a clear written plan for near-term infusion of the technology. This may be part of the final report.

State of the Art and Critical Gaps:

Current autonomous systems have limited capabilities, have poor perception of the environment, require human oversight, and need special clearances to fly in the NAS. Future autonomous systems with higher degrees of autonomy will be able to freely fly in the NAS but will require certifiable software that ensures a high degree of safety assurance. Additionally, advanced sensors and more sophisticated algorithms that can plan around other UAS/AAM vehicles and obstacles will be needed.

Therefore, for the overall subtopic, the technologies that will be required to advance the state of the art are as follows:

  • A certification process for complex nondeterministic algorithms.
  • Prognostics, vehicle health, and sensor fusion algorithms.
  • Decision-making and cooperative planning algorithms.
  • Secure and robust communications.

For this solicitation, technologies needed to advance the state of the art are:

  • Contingency decision-making algorithms.
  • Advanced sensor packages that increase situational awareness.
  • Decision-making algorithms that use advanced sensor packages to enable full autonomous operation.

Relevance / Science Traceability:

This subtopic is particularly relevant to the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) Strategic Thrust 6 (Assured Autonomy for Aviation Transformation) as well as Strategic Thrust 5 (In-Time System-Wide Safety Assurance).

References:

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