Commercial UAV Expo: NASA’s Bridenstine Presents a Vision for the Future

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Commercial UAV Expo, with record-breaking numbers of both exhibitors and attendees, opened yesterday in Las Vegas.  At this morning’s keynote addresses, NASA Administrator James Bridenstine presented a vision of the future to the show’s global audience.

Bridenstine began his career in the U.S. Navy, flying an E-2C Hawkeye.  He was elected in 2012 to represent Oklahoma’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served on the Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee. Now the 13th Administrator of NASA, Bridenstine started by reassuring the audience that the agency plans absolutely to go again to the moon – and stay there.  (He says that the agency’s goal for a moon landing is 2024 – and a mission to Mars by 2028.)

After that, Bridenstine said that NASA understands the need to look forward into the future – both for issues that can be anticipated, and those that can’t.   As a nation, says Bridenstine: “We’re always preparing for the wars that we just had – not the wars that we’re going to have.”  Bridenstine says that applies to the aviation industry also: “We can’t think about where we are today.  Aviation is an export for the US – that’s the result of investments we’ve made in the past,” says Bridenstine.  “But what about the future? What investments do we need to make now to ensure our position in 15 or 20 years?”

Urban Air Mobility

Bridenstine’s answer is clear.  “Those investments include Urban Air Mobility,” he says.  “That is what we are investing in as a nation.”   Unmanned traffic management, or UTM, is a precursor to urban air mobility – and Bridenstine points out that the agency is making real progress on developing the standards to make a working UTM framework a reality.  “UTM has been an initiative for NASA for a long time,” says Bridenstine.  “We’ve also been investing heavily in integrating unmanned systems into the National Airspace.”

Bridenstine outlines two significant research areas that NASA has invested in: Detect and Avoid, and Command and Control.  Detect and Avoid technologies, those that allow unmanned systems to avoid collisions, are a critical component of integrating drones into the airspace.  Technologies like radars are critical to systems that can detect both cooperative targets, like other drones, and non-cooperative targets – like birds.  NASA has been successfully researching ways to make those technologies smaller and mounted on drones, says Bridenstine.  “Another line of effort is Command and Control – how do we make sure that we don’t lose those datalinks?”

Bridenstine points out that the agency isn’t competing with companies to develop these technologies:  “We’re doing the research and testing to establish the standards required,” he says.  “We want to do the research, and share the research.”

What Comes Next?  

Bridenstine says that NASA is investing heavily in electrical aircraft, and advanced materials and structures to make aircraft lighter weight.  But the real push of the agency in the area of unmanned systems is in urban air mobility – and the agency has very specific goals.

“We’re launching a series of grand challenges for urban air mobility,” says Bridenstine.  “We want a model by 2028.”  The Administrator describes exactly what that model will look like – and it’s an ambitious and inspiring vision for the drone industry to meet in fewer than 10 years.

“We want to see by 2028 at least one city that has the ability to control hundreds of unmanned aerial systems, flying thousands of missions every day.”



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