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PUBLIC RELEASE DATE:
5-Jun-2014

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Contact: Sara Frueh
news@nas.edu
202-334-2138
National Academy of Sciences

Overcoming barriers to successful use of autonomous unmanned aircraft

WASHINGTON -- While civil aviation is on the threshold of potentially revolutionary changes with the emergence of increasingly autonomous unmanned aircraft, these new systems pose serious questions about how they will be safely and efficiently integrated into the existing civil aviation structure, says a new report from the National Research Council. The report identifies key barriers and provides a research agenda to aid the orderly incorporation of unmanned and autonomous aircraft into public airspace.

"There is little doubt that over the long run the potential benefits of advanced unmanned aircraft and other increasingly autonomous systems to civil aviation will indeed be great, but there should be equally little doubt that getting there while maintaining the safety and efficiency of the nation's civil aviation system will be no easy matter," said John-Paul Clarke, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and associate professor of aerospace engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The report uses the term "increasingly autonomous" systems to describe a spectrum of technologies, from unmanned aircraft that are piloted remotely which describes most such aircraft currently in use -- to advanced autonomous systems for unmanned aircraft that would adapt to changing conditions and require little or no human intervention. Increasingly autonomous systems could also be used in crewed aircraft and air traffic management systems to lessen the need for human monitoring and control.

Development of such systems is accelerating, prompted by the promise of a range of applications, such as unmanned aircraft that could be used to dust crops, monitor traffic, or execute dangerous missions currently undertaken by crewed planes, such as fighting forest fires. The FAA currently prohibits commercial use of unmanned aircraft without a waiver or special authorization.

NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate requested that the Research Council convene a committee to develop a national research agenda for autonomy in civil aviation.

One critical, crosscutting goal that must be achieved before increasingly autonomous aircraft and other systems can reach their full potential is ensuring that they will perform with the high level of safety and reliability expected of civil aviation systems, says the report. It identifies specific technological, regulatory, and other barriers that must be overcome in order to reach that goal.

To help surmount these and other barriers, the report recommends a national research agenda that would involve government agencies, industry, and academia. The committee described eight research projects, considering the following four to be the most urgent and difficult:

Behavior of adaptive/nondeterministic systems. Technologies that enable aircraft to adapt to uncertain environments and to learn based on experience will be integral to many advanced autonomous aircraft. As autonomous systems take over more functions traditionally performed by humans, there will be a growing need to incorporate autonomous monitoring and other safeguards to ensure that appropriate operational behavior continues. Research is needed to develop new methods and tools to address the inherent uncertainties in airspace system operations due to factors such as weather and conflicting air traffic and thereby enable advanced autonomous systems to improve their performance and provide greater assurance of safety.

Operation without continuous human oversight. Enabling unmanned aircraft to operate for extended periods of time without real-time human oversight will require that the autonomous systems be able to perform certain critical functions currently provided by humans, such as "detect and avoid" and contingency decision-making. Successful development of these systems and technologies depends on understanding how humans perform their roles currently and how to translate these roles to the autonomous system, particularly for high-risk situations.

Modeling and simulation. Modeling and simulation capabilities will play an important role in the development of increasingly autonomous systems because they enable researchers, designers, regulators, and operators to get information about how an aircraft -- or one of its systems or components -- performs without actually testing it in real life. For example, computer simulations may be able to test the performance of an autonomous aircraft in millions of scenarios in a short timeframe to produce a statistical basis for determining safety risks. The committee recommended the creation of a distributed suite of modeling and simulation modules developed by disparate organizations with the ability to be interconnected or networked; monolithic modeling efforts that are intended to "do it all" and answer all questions posed tend not to be effective.

Verification, validation, and certification. The national airspace system's high levels of safety largely reflect the formal requirements imposed by the FAA for verification, validation, and certification of hardware and software and the certification of people as a condition for entry into the system. Extension of these concepts and principles to highly autonomous aircraft and systems is not a simple matter and will require the development of new approaches and tools.

"The barriers we identify and the research agenda we propose to overcome them is a vital next step as we venture into this new era of flight," said committee co-chair John Lauber, a consultant and former senior vice president and chief product safety officer at Airbus.

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The study was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to NAS in 1863. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org. A committee roster follows.

Contacts:

Sara Frueh, Media Relations Officer
Lauren Rugani, Media Relations Officer
Christina Anderson, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL

Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board

Committee on Autonomy Research for Civil Aviation

John-Paul B. Clarke (co-chair)
Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta

John K. Lauber (co-chair)
Independent Consultant
Vaughn, Wash.

Brent Appleby
Deputy to the Vice of President Engineering for Science and Technology
Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc.
Cambridge, Mass.

Ella M. Atkins
Associate Professor
Department of Aerospace Engineering
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Anthony J. Broderick
Independent Consultant
Catlett, Va.

Gary L. Cowger1
Retired Group Vice President, Manufacturing and Labor
General Motors Corp.; and
Chairman and CEO
GLC Ventures LLC
Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Christopher E. Flood
Captain and Check Airman
Delta Air Lines Inc.
Round Hill, Va.

Michael S. Francis
Chief, Advanced Programs, and Senior Fellow
United Technologies Research Center
East Hartford, Conn.

Eric Frew
Associate Professor and Director
Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles
Aerospace Engineering Science Department
University of Colorado
Boulder

Andrew Lacher
UAS Integration Research Lead and Senior Principal
MITRE Corp.
McLean, Va.

John D. Lee
Emerson Professor
Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering
University of Wisconsin
Madison

Kenneth M. Rosen1
President
General Aero-Science Consultants LLC
Guilford, Conn.

Lael Rudd
Autonomy Development Lead
Northrup Grumman Aerospace Systems
Redondo Beach, Calif.

Patricia Ververs
Engineer Fellow
Honeywell Aerospace
Columbia, Md.

Larrell B. Walters
Head of Sensors System Division
University of Dayton Research Institute
Dayton, Ohio

David D. Woods
Professor
Institute for Ergonomics
Ohio State University
Columbus

Edward L. Wright2
David Saxon Presidential Chair in Physics and Professor
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of California
Los Angeles

STAFF

Alan C. Angleman
Study Director

1Member, National Academy of Engineering
2Member, National Academy of Science



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