NASA has greenlighted three teams of researchers to perform feasibility studies that could pave the way for autonomous drones and self-driving cars to operate safely and effectively at scale. Many companies are investing both in self-flying drones and in driverless cars as future transportation technologies, but in order for these to become everyday options, there are a few things that need to be in place, and this research is aimed at making that possible.
The studies will focus on three areas, including certification of self-driving cars and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS); the development of new verification tech to automatically ensure remotely piloted aircraft are fit to fly before every single trip; and using quantum computing combined with communication tech to make sure a "secure and jam-free network" exists for helping networks of hundreds of thousands of drones and vehicles communicate with each other safely and reliably each day.
These three studies were selected by a NASA team of aeronautics managers, after hearing a wide range of proposals. Each should take between 24 and 30 months to complete, respectively, and the purpose of the project is to find out whether these areas merit significant spend, and whether they'll even be possible to address, regardless of investment and scale.
You can see why these projects were chosen – in the first case, the idea that most of these systems relied on closed learning algorithms that don't necessarily offer a lot of transparency into how they achieve their decisions led NASA to want to explore whether "establish justifiable confidence in machine decisions," with an eye towards creating an industry-wide certification system, might be possible. Pre-flight checks is another pretty obvious good for the field, as is a network that can't be interrupted or shut down for communications between drones.
A future where the skies are filled with autonomous delivery drones and the roads are lined with self-driving cars is still a long way out, but this work by NASA could help it arrive sooner than expected.
Written by Darrell Etherington for TechCrunch.