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Unmanned planes on the horizon

August 22, 2012, 12:51 pm

The automotive industry seems to be getting all the credit in the autonomous sector, especially since Google has logged 300,000 miles in its unmanned cars without any accidents, but cars are not the only modes of transportation looking to adopt the technology.

Recently the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Robust Robotics Group competed at the 2012 International Conference on Robotics and Automation with a plane, while all the other schools were using easier to navigate helicopters. The issue that the team is looking to work out next year is to develop algorithms that can build a map while the plane is in the air, rather than equipping it beforehand.

The University of North Dakota's College of Engineering and Mnes is currently working on an Unmanned Aircraft System with sense-and-avoid technology. The aviation advancement looks to take up where MIT left off and accurately navigate possible airborne traffic, including birds, balloons, small aircraft and parachutists.

“That’s especially important as we move toward aircraft that will one day be equipped with ADS-B, or Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast,” said Mark Askelson, a UND atmospheric scientist and sense-and-avoid systems and ADS-B researcher. “The ADS-B system, together with more reliable and accurate sense-and-avoid technology, will be vital to future UAS operations.”

Askelson adds that ADS-B is tracking technology that will be a crucial aspect of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, and that the federal government will require it in many aircraft, including UAS, by 2020.

The problem facing the technology is avoiding obstacles in the air that do not have sensors on them.

“You have to be able to operate the UAS safely when it flies in the national airspace,” said William Semke, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UND and one of the school’s key UAS researchers. “We’re working on the instruments and sensors needed to replace the human in the aircraft who would see or ‘sense’ - and avoid - moving objects, such as a small airplane or anything up there that isn’t equipped with the technology to notify other aircraft of its presence.”

Semke added that it is not the mountains or tall buildings that will be a threat to the technology, considering it is equipped with digital maps that allow it to fly around such obstacles. Nor is it the other technologies, like planes, that would be equipped with ADS-B, relaying their position as a potential obstacles. The problem is navigating an unplanned flock of geese, which don't have the technology and are unpredictable.

Until the technologies are developed further, pilots will still be needed to fly planes. Pilot life insurance is a viable option in securing a family of a pilot from unexpected geese while flying.

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