NASA Funding Autonomous Supply Chain


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The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has underscored the importance of increasing efficiencies in the global supply chain infrastructure. In fact, the pandemic has changed the way supply chains are being strained. Autonomous aerial vehicles have the potential to revolutionize cargo transportation and provide us with greater flexibility to avoid putting workers at risk.

NASA is funding a major project on the future of autonomous air cargo transportation. Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin will lead a team that will develop methods that could be used to validate the cost and scalability of conceptual autonomous cargo operations. They will be providing theory and concepts for all types of vehicles — from large unmanned cargo aircraft crossing the U.S. to the single drone that can drop a package in residential neighborhoods.

Machine learning and computational engineering technologies will serve as the basis for finding solutions to a long list of challenges, from the management of autonomous aircraft traffic flow to regulations to public concerns about safety, privacy, emissions, and noise pollution.

The team is part of a NASA University Leadership Initiative (ULI). This program gives the university community the chance to receive the $8 million NASA funding to take the lead in building their own teams and setting their own research agenda.

The team will use a method that transforms societal concerns — from environmental, to safety and risk — into terrain or surfaces, according to “You can create a hill for each noise-sensitive area like a school or church,” said John-Paul Clarke, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering and co-principal investigator on the study. “We can then modify the flight trajectory of an aerial vehicle to ensure it remains above the resulting terrain or thereby ensure the noise level at all locations stays below the noise threshold used to create the surface.”