The emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) creates additional safety concerns for an increasingly crowded airspace.

You don't want autonomous drones flying too close to people, for example, and you don't want a UAV system-failure to cause a crash in the sky.

NASA Langley’s Safeguard with Autonomous Navigation Demonstration (SAND ) Challenge is offering small businesses a chance to solve the potential air-traffic problems.

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With a grand prize of $20,000 in the air, small-business competitors will need to use NASA Langley’s patented Safeguard technology to complete a set of complex mission profiles.

Safeguard, a verified and validated independent system originally designed to monitor off-the-shelf UAV systems, physically prevents unmanned aircraft from entering no-fly zones, or leaving approved airspace.

The technology establishes boundaries and communicates to the autopilot if the UAV is approaching or violating them.

"Think of it like an invisible dog fence, except for drones. Safeguard makes sure that you don’t fly into a region, or even a building, that you’re not supposed to," said Kelly Hayhurst, lead inventor of the technology, in 2017 .

In a real-life scenario, these boundaries can be placed around an area, such as a hospital or power lines. Such "Safeguarding" could also enforce no-fly zones and keep unmanned vehicles away from each other.

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Safeguard uses formally verified algorithms and mathematical models that monitor and predict impending boundary violations through flight termination trajectory estimation.

The technology, which can be installed into virtually any unmanned aircraft, supports tasks like cargo delivery, surveillance and monitoring, agriculture, or any operation requiring range containment.

The SAND Challenge, set for August of 2020 in Hampton, Virginia, will depict a post-hurricane scenario, where the drones must act as first responders.

The drones will be required to autonomously survey the scene and send critical information back to human emergency managers — a task that carries a greater value than a grand-prize of $20,000, according to Lena Little, External Relations Specialist at NASA Langley Research Center.

"In reality, this type of practice could save lives and give humans and advantage in knowing what kind of damage, danger, or loss of life to expect before they arrive on the scene," Little told Tech Briefs.

Safeguard will be configured to warn competitors (and auto-pilots) of boundary violations. Contestants must also comply with regulatory property protection and other operational requirements during flights, such Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 107 Regulation Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations.

An example of a "geo-fence," created by Safeguard. (Image Credit: NASA)

The contest leverages mutually beneficial opportunities, where NASA shares patented technology with external industry organizations.

"We rely on a vast ecosystem of capable aerospace industry experts to take that technology and turn it into something that would be commercially beneficial to the country," said Little.

To apply for the SAND challenge and to view more information including drone eligibility, participant eligibility, operational requirements and more please visit: 

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