NASA has rebuilt a Cessna to test new autonomous systems, including automatic radio: “When Urban Air Mobility comes, we need it.”
Urban air traffic is considered by some investors to be a promising way of getting around city traffic. However, narrow street canyons required maneuvers that classic aircraft autopilots would never fly. This calls NASA on the scene: It has equipped a Cessna LC40 with an autopilot prototype, which is ready to fly much tighter turns and stronger inclinations. There are also a number of other experimental security systems, including a fully automatic air radio.
“It was difficult to find a supplier who would modify an autopilot and then sell one or two of them,” NASA engineer Charles Howell, III, reported Monday at the Xponential drone conference in Chicago. At the South African MGL Avionics NASA was successful. It supplied an autopilot, which performs daring maneuvers compared to certified models.
Small plane with two autopilots
The Cessna LC40 (Lancair Columbia 300) belongs since 2001 to NASA. At that time, she was hired for a project to explore better utilization of underutilized airfields. Now the plane was extended by the second autopilot, which also required double equipment with servomotors. There are also devices for recording video and all sorts of data.
The test pilots can choose between the classic autopilot, no autopilot and the single piece of MGL. Once all permits have been obtained, the test flights in civil airspace should begin. Howell hopes that will be the case in a month or two, as he betrayed heise online.
But with the autopilot alone, it is not done. The LC40 is designed to test a wide range of safety systems from NASA laboratories: EVAA, AGCAS, Autonomy Operating System, Automatic Voice Response System, and ICAROUS with DAIDALUS.
Computer understands air radio and controls airplane
EVAA stands for Expandable Variable-Autonomy Architecture, a modular software framework. Among other things, it looks for obstacles, other aircraft and terrain structures to avoid collisions. AGCAS (Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System) was developed as early as 2013 to warn pilots of possible unwanted ground contact. It is now used in F16 fighter jets and is said to have already saved more than half a dozen pilots the life.
What is new is that AGCAS should not only give warnings, but should automatically activate the servomotors to avoid an impact. NASA’s Automatic Voice Response System, in turn, stops the radio, detects voice commands from air traffic controllers, and automatically turns them into flight maneuvers. “When Urban Air Mobility comes, we’ll need that kind of skill,” Howell said, though that may be of particular concern to some human pilots.
ICAROUS stands for Integrated and Configurable Algorithms for Reliable Operations of Unmanned Systems and states where the journey should go: manoeuvrable aircraft without human pilots. ICAROUS is a research project for the detection of other aircraft for the purpose of collision avoidance and relies on a NASA developed algorithm called Detect and Avoid Alerting Logic for Unmanned Systems (DAIDALUS).
In Greek mythology, Daidalos made bird feathers and wax wings for himself and his son Icarus (Icarus) to flee from the island of Crete. Icarus crashes into the sea and does not survive the escape.
The roots of NASA
While NASA is best known for its space programs, it has its origins in aviation. The organization was founded in 1915 as the Aeronautical Research Agency NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). A stony path led them to civil space flight, so that in 1958 it was expanded to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Aeronautics research is still an important task for NASA.