A Near Earth Autonomy drone flies through the clouds.
Photo courtesy of Near Earth Autonomy.

This is part of a series giving you an insider’s view of the products coming out of Pittsburgh to change the world. 

Sanjiv Singh came to Pittsburgh in 1985 to work on one of the first AI-enabled automobiles. In the ensuing years, he has shifted his focus to the skies, creating technology that can make flying safer. 

That earned his company, Near Earth Autonomy, 2022’s Tech 50 Innovator of the Year for artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics from the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

Operating vehicles autonomously in the air has its advantages over ground vehicles, says Singh, who has more than two decades of research experience as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. In the air, for example, you don’t have to worry about whether a pedestrian is going to walk in front of your vehicle. But autonomous flying has its own challenges.  

“If something goes wrong on board the aircraft, you have to be able to do all of what’s necessary to deal with that kind of case,” in a few minutes or even just a few seconds, says Singh.

He co-founded Point Breeze-based Near Earth Autonomy in 2013 to “push the envelope” for autonomous aerial vehicles. At its core, Near Earth builds the technology for an aircraft to be “aware of its environment” without depending on a pilot. Singh says “this level of extrinsic awareness of the world outside the aircraft is what will give it the extra safety that we expect from aviation.”  

Singh brings up Pittsburgh as a good example because of the hilly terrain and complex environment and describes how even in Squirrel Hill, where he lives, the challenges of taking off and landing a drone can be complex. (These videos show examples of autonomous drones in flight and how our topology impacts them.)

In the short term, you’ll probably see Near Earth’s technology in action to enable drones to deliver important payloads, such as medicines.  

With each new level of complexity, there’s an additional risk — such as what might happen if a drone is flying low above people and something goes wrong (such as a bird suddenly flying toward the drone), requiring the AI to spring into action.

For example, Singh describes how technology could assist an aircraft that has been instructed to land but encounters an aircraft on the runway that wasn’t anticipated. (I have been through this situation — and remember how concerning it was for passengers as the plane suddenly pulled out of its descent for landing.) 

Manned aircraft depend on a pilot to notice the obstruction and take action; unmanned drones need to be capable of the same type of maneuver — which is only available if they are equipped with an awareness of their environment.

Singh envisions his technology will empower safer ways to perform important tasks, beyond delivering everyday items to complex environments, even fighting fires using unmanned drones.  

David Radin is the CEO of Confirmed, an emerging SaaS company that uses advanced science to increase meeting acceptance rates. Know of a product or service being developed in Pittsburgh or by a Pittsburgh-based company that is cool, is creating growth, or will change the world?  Let David know. Contact him at dradin+insidepghtech22@confirmedapp.com.

David Radin is CEO of Confirmed (ConfirmedApp.com). For decades, he has been leveraging technology and techniques to transform the way his audiences and clients succeed.