NASA seeks drone cargo partners to help research NAS integration

NASA’s ATM-X Project provides research findings to enable the development of requirements, procedures, and technologies to enable the integration of new vehicles – Pathfinding for Airspace with Autonomous Vehicles (PAAV) – and operations into the National Airspace System (NAS).

One new use case that the ATM-X Project is considering investing in is the seamless, scalable, robust integration of large Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for cargo transportation between traditional airports and/or other NAS access points. Unlike the use of small UAS for package delivery, these large UAS are expected to be capable of transporting large amounts of cargo regionally or nationally. It is expected that automated technologies will be necessary for the full integration of seamless, scalable, and robust UAS Cargo operations.

The objectives of this request for information (RFI) are to learn about industry plans to invest in UAS Cargo operations, understand the challenges that must be addressed, and help NASA determine a comprehensive partnership strategy to engage industry. NASA is specifically interested in potential industry partnerships to help guide the development of a comprehensive concept of operations for commercially viable UAS cargo operations, which will guide NASA research. NASA is also interested in potential partnerships to conduct collaborative flight tests/demonstration with NASA, which may include an incremental build up. Sub systems and/or autonomous functions may be demonstrated in the 2023 timeframe and a complete integrated system demonstration is desired in the 2025 timeframe.

Specific goals of this RFI include:

  • Determine if there is sufficient industry interest in UAS cargo operations in order to determine if this is an area where NASA should invest
  • Enable NASA to determine the most effective way to partner with industry to achieve the goal of integrating scalable and routine UAS cargo operations into the National Airspace System
  • Obtain technical information on relevant industry efforts such as technology development cycles and overall plans for UAS cargo operations
  • Obtain schedule related information to determine whether NASA’s planned research efforts will provide timely support to the developing UAS cargo industry
  • Obtain a reasonable fiscal rough orders of magnitude (ROM) from Industry with respect to their potential in-kind contributions to guide partnership/acquisition decisions, and ensure the PAAV demonstration can be successfully executed within resources

The information gathered through this RFI will inform NASA’s partnership strategy, develop partnership requirements and may or may not be used to engage with specific partners. The goal of the PAAV activity is to enable seamless, scalable, and robust integration of increasingly automated air cargo operations into the NAS. As previously described, PAAV is expected to provide research to help enable the development of requirements, procedures, and automated technologies needed for the full integration of commercially viable UAS cargo operations in the NAS.

In support of the vision to achieve full seamless, scalable, robust integration of automated air cargo operations in the NAS, the ATM-X Project is interested in conducting collaborative concept of operations development and flight demonstrations of UAS Cargo operations with industry partners. Under the current plans, the latest opportunity for these demonstrations is 2025; however, NASA is also interested in learning about earlier demonstration opportunities.

A key objective of the PAAV flight demonstrations will be to demonstrate procedures and technologies necessary for gate-to-gate file and fly UAS cargo operations in the NAS. It is expected that automated technologies will be needed for full commercial operations to address items such as surface operations, detect and avoid and collision avoidance, and contingency management (e.g., lost link and off nominal operations). The use of automated technologies that are commercially viable and have a path toward certification and operational use is of significant interest to NASA. The PAAV demonstration is expected to use industry-provided vehicles which may include optionally piloted, manned surrogate and/or remotely piloted aircraft. In addition, PAAV expects to demonstrate automated technologies to enable gate-to-gate UAS cargo operations. Both the vehicle and technologies used in the demonstrations are expected to be on a development path toward a certified system. The demonstration will be a partnership between NASA and industry and include significant coordination with the FAA. Earlier demonstrations may focus on particular technologies or operating environments (e.g., en route, terminal, or surface); however, later demonstrations are expected to focus on the integration of technologies required for file and fly UAS cargo operations.

Specific considerations for the PAAV demonstration include:

  • Automated technologies that are necessary to support a viable commercial concept of operations
  • UAS integration focused demonstration flight(s) with one or more partner provided UAS
  • All ground and flight procedures and technologies necessary to implement the proposed UAS mission (gate to gate)
  • All vehicle technologies assessed to determine the most innovative and state of the art solution set that can meet airworthiness expectations for the demonstration

The primary objectives of this PAAV demonstration are:

  • Develop concept of operations, driven by industry and vetted with the FAA, that identifies future needs and enabling technologies for the integration of emerging increasingly automated cargo operations into the NAS
  • Identify system requirements and/or standards to address major barriers to routine file and fly increasingly automated cargo operations
  • Identify increasingly automated functions needed for robust and scalable cargo operations and examine necessary changes to existing roles and responsibilities between humans and automation
  • Validate requirements through collaborative flight demonstration

Potential collaborators who may consider responding include:

  • UAS Vehicle Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs)
  • Cargo Operators
  • UAS avionics and middleware industry representatives
  • Software companies supporting UAS operations
  • Sensor manufacturers
  • Communication/navigation/surveillance providers
  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) UAS test sites
  • Ground station system developers, and
  • Others who have capabilities to enable UAS operations in the NAS


Tender number: 80ARC020ATMXPAAV

Deadline :29 January 2021

For more information

(Image: Shutterstock)

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