NASA Spawns Drones that Deliver Defibrillators and Pizzas

Life-saving technology or tasty pies can be remotely piloted to your home in five or 10 minutes.
by Tamara Dietrich, Daily Press | September 16, 2019 AT 3:05 AM

(TNS) - This just might be the near future of pizza delivery:

A guy at your local pizza place loads your pie onto a drone idling on a compact launch/landing pad in the parking lot. Another guy, maybe even in another state, launches the drone remotely and pilots it five or 10 minutes to your house, where the pie is lowered by tether to your waiting hands.

It’s not quite “The Jetsons,” but it’s getting there.

NASA Langley Research Center has a hand in making it happen. Its engineers and scientists have been helping to develop and test the technologies, including “detect and avoid” computer software and safety features, to enable drone delivery systems like this one.

“NASA has multiple ongoing projects researching into the world of unmanned flight,” said David Meade, a Langley spokesman. The space agency is partnering with industry, academia and the regulatory Federal Aviation Administration to test the concepts and technologies needed "to help move this industry forward.”

NASA technologies include air traffic management, the Safe 2 Ditch emergency landing program, the SAFEGUARD geofencing program that protects critical infrastructure or airspace, and advanced composite materials to make devices lighter and stronger.

The delivery scenario is but one of many potential uses for unmanned aerial systems envisioned by Matt Sweeney, the Australian-born American founder and CEO of Flirtey Inc.

On Monday, Sweeney unveiled his latest delivery drone, the Eagle, which is bound for real-world testing in Reno, Nev. If all goes well, Sweeney plans to soar higher still. And soon.

“We’re on track through our work with the FAA to start routine delivery demonstrations to customer homes in Reno this year, and we’re on track to get all of the commercial regulatory approvals that we then need to scale nationwide in 2020,” Sweeney said. “So this is going to happen a lot faster than I think a lot of people had realized.”

He said he’s already lined up commercial customers like Domino’s Pizza and 7-Eleven.

Even the Eagle has NASA Langley DNA: Sweeney had hired the former head of Langley’s drone program, John Foggia, to lead the company’s engineering efforts. Foggia passed away in March.

And in 2015 Langley assisted in Flirtey’s delivery of drugs and medicines via remotely piloted hexacopter to a health fair for low-income residents of Wise County — the first package delivered by drone.

That historic event was part of Virginia Tech’s unmanned aircraft systems test site program, one of six in the country approved by the FAA.

Flirtey’s system consists of the drone, a parking space-size takeoff and landing platform called the “portal” and FAA-approved autonomous software that enables a single pilot to handle up to 10 drones remotely. The FAA also approved flights beyond visual line of sight and at night.

The Eagle was built to fly in nearly all inclement weather conditions. Sweeney said its maximum payload volume and weight is proprietary, but the drone can handle about 75% of package deliveries. The ultimate goal is to make each delivery in under 10 minutes.

“We’re going to put delivery drones at every local mall in America,” Sweeney said. “At every local store that wants them.”

Beyond the commercial, he said, drone delivery systems also have health care applications, flying medical supplies to individual customers. But they can also fly medicine, food, water and other supplies to victims of natural disasters, particularly when roadways or airports are inaccessible.

The Reno test bed is one of 10 around the country chosen by the FAA and the Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program. Participants will gather data on night operations, flights over people and beyond line of sight, aerial deliveries, detect and avoid technologies and data security between pilot and aircraft.

The Transportation Department says that information will help craft rules to balance local and national interests and address security and privacy concerns over more complex low-altitude drone operations.

©2019 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.