NASA helps write the rules for private drone use

NASA's "Ikhana" drone -- the cameras on the lower part of the machine provide remote pilots a 2-D view of the world.
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NASA pilot Mark Pestana uses this simulation to practice flying unmanned vehicles.
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The Ikhana vehicle parked at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.
KPCC/Sanden Totten
Project Manager Laurie Grindle is helping the Federal Aviation Administration research and test systems for drones in public airspace.
KPCC/Sanden Totten

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NASA has a long history of testing aircraft, not just spacecraft. After all it is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

So when the Federal Aviation Administration began developing guidelines for the civilian use of unmanned vehicles, also known as drones, they turned to NASA.

Much of the work is being done at Dryden Flight Research Center housed on the massive Edwards Air Force Base in Antelope Valley.

It's located in a dry flat stretch of the Mojave desert and has more unmanned vehicles than any other NASA facility, including an MQ9.

Not an easy flight

The military calls MQ9 model a "Reaper," and has used the drone to fire missiles at insurgents in remote areas.

But NASA has given its MQ9 test model a friendlier name.

"NASA calls it Ikhana," says Mark Pestana. It's a Choctaw word meaning "intelligence, learning and awareness."

Pestana is a former NASA pilot and  has been trained to fly this vehicle from a control booth. It's sleek, white and slightly smaller than a crop duster. He says it's much trickier  to maneuver than you'd think.

"I tell people I've been robbed of my senses," he said during an interview at the research center. "I am so use to hearing the engine noise, feeling vibrations and motion. This airplane is strictly a visual task."

Open skies coming soon

In 2015 the FAA plans to open up national airspace to some unmanned aerial vehicles above 18,000 feet.

The goal is that one day companies like FedEx could deliver packages without pilots, farmers could watch crops from above, and real estate photographers could take birds-eye snapshots of properties.

But before any of this happens, the FAA needs rules on how to operate these machines safely. NASA project manager Laurie Grindle says the aerospace agency is researching what those rules should be.

"Everything that's happened so far with respect to the rules are all based around a pilot in the cockpit," Grindle said.

Sense and avoid

Her team is researching how these vehicles will communicate with air traffic control, what it should it take for a pilot to get a drone license, and how to set up a system of artificial awareness so these machines can sense and avoid planes, other drones, and even birds.

"Birds are kind of like uncooperative traffic, you can't dictate what they are going to do," Grindle noted. She says that kind of unpredictability is difficult to program into a computer algorithm.

NASA is using computer simulations, models and even real jets to design such an avoidance system.

Drones and privacy

One things NASA wasn't asked to look at is how to keep drones from snooping on private citizens.

That's something Jennifer Lynch is concerned about. She's with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights group.

She say unmanned vehicles could be used by private companies to infringe on people's privacy, and so far there are no comprehensive laws to prevent that.

"Legislators are looking into this but nobody has solved the problem yet," Lynch explained.

She noted that a bill dealing with drones and privacy was introduced by lawmakers in California but it never went anywhere. She expects it to be taken up again in the future.

NASA admits there are concerns over privacy but the agency says those kinds of policy decisions are outside its purview. For now, NASA will continue researching these vehicles to advise the FAA on what kinds of flight safety regulations are needed.

In 2015, the FAA will allow some unmanned vehicles into national airspace above 18,000 feet, but NASA Laurie Grindle says the skies at large likely won't be fully open until 2020 or later.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Mark Pestana's name.