This post is also available in: heעברית (Hebrew)

The need to reliably know a drone’s location horizontally and vertically is critical to ensure safe operations in urban air traffic corridors. The use of existing satellite and cellular-based positioning techniques (A-GNSS, OTDOA, etc.) can be problematic in dense urban areas and almost impossible indoors.

A system that facilitates urban drone operations in non-GPS environments has been accepted for use by NASA and will be integrated into its urban drone operations. The Metropolitan Beacon System (MBS) is provided by NextNav, a provider of 3D geolocation services.

The technology has been developed for applications like E911 and other mission-critical public safety communications, and is based on a dedicated terrestrial positioning network to augment current solutions and enable accurate and secure location of mobile devices.

The system enables urban drone operations where satellite-based GPS signals may not be available. NASA intends to use the MBS network as part of its CERTAIN (City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation) facilities. CERTAIN supports, among other programs, Urban Air Mobility, an air transportation system with myriad applications, including small package-delivery drones and passenger-carrying air taxis.

NextNav’s wide-area terrestrial positioning network provides accurate and secure location services – critical for unmanned aircraft navigation. In addition, MBS complements and integrates with GPS and provides a level of georedundancy, ensuring a safe and efficient system for future air transportation in urban areas, the company says.

The system is not based on equipment installed in individual venues,  but rather on a long-range beacon network with a reach of many kilometers.  It covers every building within the coverage footprint, and is not limited by the availability of building-specific equipment, according to the company website.

Ganesh Pattabiraman, co-founder and CEO of NextNav, said: “The MBS system is designed for secure, reliable and consistent 3D geolocation capabilities, which are important for autonomous systems such as drones. NASA’s acquisition of the MBS system is an exciting milestone for MBS technology and a great partnership with NASA to address the key challenges in urban drone navigation.”

“NextNav’s MBS system provides us with new tools for the development of navigation systems in environments where GPS has traditionally been challenged,” says Evan Dill of the Safety-Critical Avionics Systems Branch of NASA.