UT Austin researchers receive $3.65M from NASA to study drones’ impact on society

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — NASA has awarded researchers at the University of Texas at Austin $3.65 million to help study how to best use drones to move packages around our skies.

The team from both the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics believes this work on autonomous aerial vehicles has the potential to revolutionize cargo transportation.

They will be offering new ideas and concepts for all types of drones, ranging from a single drone that can drop a package off at your doorstep, to large carriers that can fly across the country.

The researchers will look to preemptively identify and solve some of the challenges they’ll face from traffic flow problems to public concerns about safety, privacy, emissions and noise pollution.

“We are using mathematical models to represent public concerns that characterize their relative importance with other factors in the overall process,” said Lead Investigator Ufuk Topcu.

The team includes experts from Purdue University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and several other universities.

Part of its methodology includes charting likely flight paths and identifying areas that may be sensitive to noise pollution.

“We can then modify the flight trajectory of an aerial vehicle to ensure it remains above the resulting terrain to thereby ensure the noise level at all locations stays below the noise threshold used to create the surface,” said Researcher John-Paul Clarke.

The researchers said the pandemic has identified new considerations that’ll likely increase the public’s acceptance of this new technology.

“Suddenly we must account for the risk associated with the driver of a truck on her way to a town or city where the virus is rampant,” Clarke said. “Autonomous aerial vehicles can provide us with greater flexibility to avoid putting workers at risk.”

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