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Enabling Aircraft Autonomy


Scope Title:

Autonomyfor Disaster Response


Technologies developed under this scope will advance the utility ofautonomy in emergency response applications that useaircraft. The NASA and the Advanced Capabilities for EmergencyResponse Operations (ACERO) project is specifically looking fortechnologies that will aid in wildfire response.

Autonomy in disaster response includestechnologies that:

  • Help autonomousand piloted flight in areas with degraded visibility.
  • Supportunmanned logistic operations, such as moving supplies to differentareas.
  • Supportwildfire suppression and management missions.
  • Support 24/7 operations.

These technologies would need to beeither platform-agnostic or easily adaptable to different vehicles as avariety of aircraft are used for disaster and emergency response. 

These autonomous technologies wouldneed to be tailored for the type of disaster involved. For this scope,proposed technologies must be tailored for wildfire response.

Flying to respond to emergencysituations can necessitate that vehicles enter areaswith low visibility for piloted aircraft or into a loss of line of sightfor remotely piloted and autonomous vehicles. Autonomous systems can beused to mitigate the hazards of flying in this environment and stillrespond to the missions assigned to the vehicle. For instance, inwildfire response, operations in high smoke or at night could usevarious perception systems to continue firefighting efforts whilelowering risk to pilots and aircraft. Low size, weight, and powerperception systems that are adaptable to varying sizes and types of UASswould allow for responders to take existing aircraft and make them readyfor hazardous, low-visibility operations. These technologies could alsoenable safer and increased night-time operations for wildfire response.For example, these technologies would be used for safer and efficientfire retardant drops in low-visibility conditions.

For response support, autonomoussystems can enable faster and safer logistics operations. Forinstance, in wildfire response, supplies such as axes would need to bedropped off to various areas for responders to use. Autonomoustechnology from this subtopic could allow for supply UASs to determinethe areas that need supplies, find the optimal path to those spots, anddrop off the supplies under variable conditions that might limit controland oversight from ground operators and/or pilots. Other logisticstechnologies could track and assess the status of the various personneland aircraft to assist with coordination efforts in responding to thewildfire.

Autonomous technologies that supportwildfire suppression efforts are another key area of interest for ACERO.Technologies that can assess the fire-retardant drop line clearance anddrop efficiency and provide real-time information to pilots andoperations centers are also highly desired. Other technologyexamples include tracking of personnel, automated retardant drops,retardant clearance and drop assessment, as well as visualization ofassets via displays and VR options.

Delivery of prototypes is expected bythe end of Phase II. Prototype deliverables such as toolboxes,integrated hardware prototypes, training databases, ordevelopment/testing environments would allow for better possibleinfusion of the proposed technology into current and future NASAprograms and projects.

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

Proposers wanting to focus on servicesor technologies to coordinate airborne operations across a wildfire areashould submit their proposal to A3.02: Advanced Air Traffic Managementfor Nontraditional Airspace Missions, under Scope 2: NontraditionalAviation Operations for Wildfire Response.

Expected TRL or TRL Range at completion of theProject: 3 to 6

Primary TechnologyTaxonomy:

  • Level 1 10Autonomous Systems
  • Level 2 10.2Reasoning andActing

DesiredDeliverables of Phase I and PhaseII:

  • Analysis
  • Prototype
  • Hardware
  • Software
  • Research

DesiredDeliverables Description:
Phase Ideliverables should include, but are not limited to:

  • A writtenplan to continue the technology development and/or to infuse thetechnology (i.e., sensors and algorithms). This may be included in the finalreport.
  • A finalreport clearly stating the technology challenge addressed, the state ofthe technology before the work was begun, the state of technology afterthe work was completed, the innovations that were made during the workperiod, the remaining barriers in the technology challenge, and a planto overcome the remaining barriers.
  • Atechnology demonstration in a simulation environment that clearly showsthe benefits of the technology developed.

Phase IIdeliverables should include, but are not limited to:

  •  A usable/workable prototype of thetechnology (or software program), such as toolboxes, integrated hardwareprototypes, training databases, or development/testing environments.
  • Atechnology demonstration in a relevant flight environment that clearlyshows the benefits of the technology developed.
  • A finalreport clearly stating the technology challenge addressed, the state ofthe technology before the work was begun, the state of technology afterthe work was completed, the innovations that were made during the workperiod, the remaining barriers in the technology challenge, and a planto overcome the remaining barriers.
  • Thereshould be evidence of infusing the technology or a clear written planfor near-term infusion of the technology. This may be part of the finalreport.

State of the Art and CriticalGaps:

Current autonomoussystems have limited capabilities, have poor perception of theenvironment, require human oversight, and need special clearances to flyin the National Airspace System (NAS). Future autonomous systems withhigher degrees of autonomy will be able to freely fly in the NAS butwill require certifiable software that ensures a high degree of safetyassurance. Additionally, advanced sensors and more sophisticatedalgorithms that can plan around other UAS/AAM vehicles and obstacleswill be needed.

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

  • A certification process for complexnondeterministic algorithms.
  • Prognostics, vehicle health, andsensor fusion algorithms.
  • Decision-making and cooperativeplanning algorithms.
  • Secure and robustcommunications.

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

  • Contingency decision-makingalgorithms.
  • Advanced sensor packages thatincrease situational awareness.
  • Decision-making algorithms that useadvanced sensor packages to enable full autonomous operation.

Relevance / ScienceTraceability:

This subtopicis particularly relevant to the NASA Aeronautics Research MissionDirectorate (ARMD) Strategic Thrust 6 (Assured Autonomy forAviation Transformation) as well as Strategic Thrust 5 (In-TimeSystem-Wide Safety Assurance).

  • Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program (TACP):
  • AirspaceOperations and Safety Program (AOSP):
  • Integrated Aviation Systems Program (IASP):


  • Advanced Capabilities for Emergency ResponseOperations (ACERO)
  • Strategic Implementation Plan forNASA’s ARMD:
  • Autonomous Systems: NASA Capability Overview(2018 presentation by Terry Fong, Senior Scientist):
  • UAS Integration in the NAS Project(concluded Sept 2020):,tests%20in%20a%20relevant%20environment.
  • NASA Explores “Smart”Data for Autonomous World:
  • Autonomous Systems Research atNASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center:

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