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Safe Drone Crash-Landing? This NASA Technology Can Help

30 May 2017, 1:16 am EDT By Katrina Pascual Tech Times
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Drone enthusiast arrested for flying DJI near Tel Aviv Airport landing strip
Glaab first thought of the technology back in 2015, and then got a little under $10,000 from NASA to develop it. Back then, companies have started to more frequently use unmanned aerial vehicles, but both software and mechanical problems could put drones and people below them at risk.   ( VCG | Getty Images )

NASA researchers are eyeing and developing new technology to help drones automatically select the best places during a crash landing to avoid any accidents on the ground.

This is in light of the increasing numbers of drones flying in the sky, potentially endangering both people and properties when they come crashing down with mechanical issues.

Safer Emergency Landings

Aerospace technologist Patricia Glaab from NASA Langley Research Center teamed up with her husband and fellow NASA researcher Lou Glaab in crafting crash-landing software for drones.

She revealed that based on their eight test flights so far, their technology has already successfully selected safe landing zones such as drainage ditches to avoid emergency landings on properties such as people’s cars.

“No one wants to think about it,” Glaab said of drone crashes in a Fortune report, adding that drone capabilities get more attention than these safety features and scenarios.

Glaab first thought of the technology back in 2015, and then got a little under $10,000 from the U.S. space agency to develop it. It was an opportune time, as companies started to more frequently use drones for power line or rooftop inspection, but both software and mechanical problems could put drones and people below them at risk.

Amazon, for instance, seeks to deploy entire drone fleets in the air to deliver customer orders.

Designed For Emergency Situations

While companies such as China-based DJI install software that assists drones in sensing and steering free of obstacles while flying, Glaab warned that these technologies aren’t cut out for emergencies.

Their crash-landing software technology, still in development at present, links drone parts like motors and batteries for health checks. It seeks to identify when something on-board is off, putting the drone in a crash-landing setting once confirmed.

The software, once it is triggered, goes through a database of safe zones close by. A similar national database for emergency case is already being used by major airlines.

The software also features capabilities, developed by a team from Brigham Young University, that allows drones to recognize as well as avoid things on the ground via on-board cameras.

Note, however, that the database must be manually uploaded in the drone being tested for every location. It may not be considered a tedious process, but only another step in the whole system as we envision a future when drones can wirelessly connect to a national safe landing zone database.

Bird-Drone Interactions

In Australia, a professional drone surveyor said that a staggering 90 percent of problems in using unmanned aerial vehicles are caused by eagle attacks. It turns out that wedge-tailed eagles and drones are fighting for territory in Western Australian skies.

“You don’t really know if they are just curious, or sometimes they are just really unhappy with you. So you have to be quite aware,” said Flynn Drage of HTD Surveyors, who regularly makes use of drones to take measurements in remote places across his state.

Some of the eagles will “fly straight up” to a drone and initiate a mid-air tussle as they would with another bird, he recalled.

The interaction costs surveying firms not only lost time due to job postponement, but also broken equipment and devices. The birds, too, could face deadly injuries.

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