NASA challenge offers prize money for new drone safety technology

Artists conception of NASA Challenge. (image courtesy NASA)

NASA is challenging researchers to develop technology that will allow unmanned aircraft to fly safely in shared airspace, and a University of North Dakota team plans to compete for up to $1.5 million in prize money.

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge will be held in two parts. The first competition is scheduled for next summer has a $500,000 prize.  Phase 2 of the competition will be held one year later with a $1,000,000 prize.

UND Associate Professor William Semke says the challenge is a perfect fit with the work faculty and students are already doing. “We feel we’d come into that opportunity in really good shape. I think we’d be a strong competitor in that. It is a significant undertaking but there is a significant prize money involved as well.”

The NASA challenge is expected to attract a lot of attention. Developing a ‘sense and avoid’ technology for drones is a critical step before the FAA will allow unmanned aircraft to fly in the national airspace with piloted planes.

Semke works with students to write software that can recognize potential aircraft collisions and prompt the drone to take evasive action. That software has been in development since 2007 and UND has been testing it in the air since 2009. NASA is testing the UND software in flights this week near Grand Forks.

Semke says some of the software developed by UND is patented. “Spinoff companies are trying to do some work with this algorithm to move this forward into the commercial airspace.”

A team of students, former students and faculty are already preparing to dive into the NASA challenge.