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Pittsburgh company to land self-flying cars

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, 10:57 a.m.
A drawing of Vahana, the self-flying car under development by Airbus.
A drawing of Vahana, the self-flying car under development by Airbus.
A drawing of the sensor package known as Peregrine that Near Earth Autonomy will supply to Airbus for Vahana, its self-flying car project.
A drawing of the sensor package known as Peregrine that Near Earth Autonomy will supply to Airbus for Vahana, its self-flying car project.

What goes up must come down, right?

Airbus, which is working to develop autonomous flying cars in Silicon Valley, is teaming with a Pittsburgh company to ensure that the aircraft will be able to land safely.

Bloomfield-based Near Earth Autonomy makes laser and sensor systems for autonomous aerial vehicles such as drones and helicopters and will provide hardware for Vahana , the self-flying car that Airbus is working on in Silicon Valley.

Airbus and Near Earth Autonomy announced the partnership Wednesday.

A concept drawing of a Vahana aircraft waiting for passengers | Photo from Vahana

"It is one critical part," Near Earth Autonomy CEO Sanjiv Singh said about landing the autonomous aircraft. "Something could be off about that (landing) place. Maybe there's another vehicle there that was supposed to take off but didn't."

Vahana is a rotor-driven aircraft that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter. Its eight rotors are strung across wing-like booms in the front and back of the aircraft. Vahana would operate like an Uber or Lyft for the sky, with riders requesting the aircraft to pick them up in one location and fly them to another location.

Vahana hopes to have a full-size prototype in the sky before the end of 2017.

"When you descend far away from where you started, it's really hard to guarantee that the place you're going to land is safe," Singh said.

A laser scanner developed by Near Earth Autonomy will bolt onto the aircraft being developed by Airbus. The package of sensors, known as Peregrine, will evaluate the landing zone for objects sticking up from the surface, such as trees, trash cans and cars, and for slopes that could complicate landing. It builds a 3D model of the landing zone and adds more detail as the aircraft descends. At 20 meters from the ground, about the height of a six-story building, the sensors can detect small objects, Singh said.

If the hardware determines the desired landing zone is not safe, it will scan the surrounding area for a better place.

"The emphasis has been on what does it take to actually fly," Singh said about the development of self-flying vehicles. "Typically, there is very little work on the autonomy side that is necessary for it to fly safely."

Vahana's carbon fiber exterior under construction in Silicon Valley | Photo from Vahana

To land the partnership with Airbus, Singh and his team had to execute 50 flawless landings. In 50 landings, the hardware was allowed only one false positive — sensing something that isn't actually there — and wasn't allowed to miss any objects as small as 1 foot.

Near Earth Autonomy worked on the project for about six months. Singh said the deal with Airbus is a significant step forward for the Carnegie Mellon University spin­off company. Peregrine required an increased robustness that could be bolted onto an existing vehicle.

"We've gone from a research prototype to one that has a higher grade of reliability," Singh said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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