NASA wants city skies filled with drones delivering packages and people

Fri, 11/01/2019 - 15:09
by Stephen Shankland

In less than a decade, the air above at least one United States city will be buzzing with unmanned electric aircraft delivering people and packages -- at least if NASA's plan for the future of drones comes true. Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator, touted the idea Tuesday but knows it won't be easy.

"We are moving fast," Bridenstine said in a speech at the Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas. "We want to see by 2028 at least one city -- maybe more than one -- have the ability to control hundreds of unmanned aerial systems. They could be carrying cargo or could be carrying people, doing thousands of missions every day."

To turn the vision into reality, NASA is using a "grand challenge" incentive program to improve the technology's maturity. Bridenstine likened the approach to the US government's robotic vehicle grand challenge in 2004 that ultimately led to today's self-driving car efforts from companies including Waymo, Cruise and Uber. NASA is working on a more modest urban air mobility grand challenge for 2022 intended as a steppingstone to a grander future.

Drones have caught on for jobs like making movies, monitoring oil refineries, gathering military intelligence and aiding search and rescue operations. Moving from that world to one where drones are commonplace will require major changes in not just technology but also safety, regulations and social acceptance. It's clear the Trump administration wants to encourage the change, though, not take a passive role watching it happen.

Plenty of companies are working on drone technology. Amazon Prime Air has a new delivery drone design, and UPS wants to deliver medical supplies to hospitals and to homes. For shuttling people, startup efforts like Uber Elevate, Kitty Hawk and NFT are joining aerospace powers including Airbus and Bell.

Drone challenges galore

Bridenstine knows there'll be plenty of challenges. Among them are infrastructure issues like finding places for drones to land. Another is noise.

He believes part of the solution will involve moving to battery-powered drones from gas-powered ones -- a common approach for models that can handle heavy payloads today.

"A lot of these vehicles will be hybrid electric or fully electric," he said. "Electric vehicles will drive down costs, reduce noise and reduce carbon emissions." Bridenstine framed the drone progress as an issue of national prestige and economic success, a view that meshes with President Donald Trump's focus on increasing the nation's trade surplus.

"We want to make sure aviation stays an export for the United States of America," Bridenstine said.

NASA's moon mission

The strength of the US aviation industry is based on past investments, and that's why the country needs to spend money on urban air mobility research now, he said. Most people associate NASA with space missions, but Bridenstine quipped that people forget the first A in NASA stands for aeronautics.

But he did talk about the rest of NASA's mission, too, including the effort to put humans on the moon and Mars. NASA, with support from congressional Republicans and Democrats as well as Trump, has advanced the schedule of its Artemis mission to make a moon base.

"We have been tasked under the Artemis program ... with landing the next man and the first woman on the south pole of the moon by 2024," Bridenstine said. "We're going to do it within five years, and we're going to create a sustainable architecture that enables us to go to Mars."

There might even be two women who land on the moon, he said, but there will definitely be at least one.

Artemis is "the twin sister of Apollo, who happens to be the goddess of the moon," Bridenstine said. "There will be a woman on that mission."

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