Tuesday, July 21, 2015

2015-07-20: Autonomy Incubator Assists in First FAA-Approved UAV Delivery

The SR22. Image credit NASA.

Reaching remote locales in need of supplies is a common goal across the unmanned and autonomy research communities. It was with this challenge in mind that the Let's Fly Wisely program came into being: using UAVs to deliver prescription medication to the Remote Area Clinic in Wise County, Virginia.

Sure, the massive media attention surrounding this first FAA-approved unmanned package delivery in the National Air Space (NAS) can only mean good things for the Autonomy Incubator (AI) and its mission of autonomous flight, but we have an even closer connection: AI member John Foggia, the project manager for the CERTAIN (City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation) program and a driving force behind our recent untethered flight, served as the Safety Officer for Fly Wisely. Even more monumental, he secured a role for NASA Langley's SR22 UAS surrogate as the fixed-wing aircraft that flew the medication into the Wise, VA airport to be transferred onto a hexrotor UAV.

That's a lot of information, so let's back up a bit: the NASA Langley SR22 is a one-of-a-kind airplane, built on-center by a team of which John was a part.  It's what he calls a "surrogate UAS," a vehicle that was not built to be autonomous but was retrofitted that way. Everything—pitch, roll, yaw, attitude—is controllable from the ground. They even built a robotic arm to work the throttle and give remote speed control, and it's accurate to within one knot.

"Better than a human can do it. Well, other than me," John joked.

What makes the SR22 even more unique is that it's not technically unmanned: a "safety pilot" sits in the cockpit and lets the airplane have the controls, ready to hit the manual override button and take over if need be (which rarely happens). In addition to the pilot, there's also another person in the back of the plane with a radio headset and a computer. In the event that the ground station loses contact with the airplane, the onboard researcher can take over controls with his or her computer and continue flying the mission.  Because it's a manned aircraft, the SR22 can fly in the NAS, which was crucial for Fly Wisely.

The Let's Fly Wisely project is the brainchild of several organizations, including Remote Aerial Medical (RAM), the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), the charity Health Wagon, Virginia Tech, and Australian UAV delivery company Flirtey.  John, representing NASA LaRC, was originally brought on board in April to be the safety officer.  However, when the fixed-wing craft that was supposed to fly the mission suddenly became unavailable, John saw an opportunity to show what NASA Langley can do.

The SR22 had flown LD-CAP, another big research mission off-center in North Dakota some years ago, John said, so he had complete faith that the SR22 would be both good for Fly Wisely and good for NASA. "[The North Dakota flight] was a huge success, but very quiet to the media. This [Fly Wisely mission] wasn't quiet."

The efforts to which John and the rest of NASA Langley went in order to make the SR22 a part of Fly Wisely are simply extraordinary, given the incredibly tight turnaround for all the paperwork that had to go into such a high-profile and groundbreaking endeavor.  Space Act Agreements, COAs, every conceivable bureaucratic hurdle. But, they did it, and as John said, "our part went off flawlessly."

A crowd of hundreds met the SR22 as it cruised into the Lonesome Pine Airport, watching it circle overhead before it landed to deliver its package of medication.  As the spectators swarmed the airplane, John controlled the crowd and took the package outside, where a doctor took control of it and hooked it onto the Flirtey hexrotor's delivery apparatus—a specially-designed cable winch under the vehicle. Finally, the UAV took to the skies.

The hexrotor used GPS waypoints to navigate the 20-mile journey to the Wise County Fairgrounds, where the one-day RAM Remote Area Clinic was underway.  According to John, there were people camped out the night before just to make sure that they received care at the first-come, first-serve clinic.

"Once they're out of stuff, they're out of stuff," he said. That's where autonomous UAV supply delivery comes in. In a future where UAV delivery becomes ubiquitous, clinics like RAM's will be able to serve more people. No longer will medical staff be limited to only what they can carry on site when autonomous UAVs can deliver more of whatever they need.

That's the future John sees for flight: autonomous air vehicles taking over for human pilots, both in airplanes and in small UAVs, and NASA Langley remaining crucial to making that change possible.

"We're trying to promote trust in autonomy, so we're doing in situ research that people will believe. ...  We need to convince the public that autonomy is the safest way forward," he said. As autonomy research continues, "Langley has a set of competencies, capabilities, and access that no one else has."

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