Pittsburgh has rapidly become one of the world’s centers for engineering self-driving cars. Self-driving aircraft may be next.

Point Breeze-based Near Earth Autonomy has partnered with Kaman Corporation and the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) to develop a fully-autonomous K-MAX helicopter, which can lift up to 6,000 pounds.

Using sensors and onboard computers, the helicopter can make real-time decisions during its flight to fly around objects and select clear places to land or drop off cargo.

“It basically does what a pilot would do in a helicopter,” explains Near Earth Autonomy CEO and co-founder Sanjiv Singh. “It makes sure continuously that the vehicle is staying safe, and if some exception comes up, you react to it.”

Photo courtesy of Near Earth Autonomy.

Near Earth’s technology has a lot of potential applications, from resupply missions to medical evacuation, reducing the risk to human pilots.

“Any kind of deployment requires a fair amount of movement of all kinds of materials: food, water, medicine, fuel,” says Singh. “All these things need to be moved as soldiers and Marines are deployed. This poses a logistics challenge.”

Near Earth Autonomy’s aircraft can use GPS, but isn’t limited to that. They use other systems of navigation, like “visual dead reckoning, which is somewhat like counting steps,” says Singh, and also like recognizing landmarks.

In May, they were awarded a contract by NASA to develop drone systems for industrial infrastructure inspection.

“NASA is not just for space,” explains Singh. “The ‘A’ in NASA is aeronautics. NASA is interested in all sorts of autonomous flight.”

The company is a spinoff from Carnegie Mellon University that started in 2012. Singh received his PhD in Robotics at Carnegie Mellon in 1995, and has served on the faculty at the Robotics Institute.

Near Earth employs 80 at its headquarters in Point Breeze, and is hiring engineers.

“Pittsburgh has been a fantastic place for us to be based,” says Singh. “High quality of life for cost of living — this is a sweet spot. Good connections with the local economy, the universities.”

“Basically, there’s a lot of work in self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Near Earth is pushing this kind of technology into the air.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.