One of the big worries about the widespread use of multicopter drones is the possibility that if they stop working, they might plummet from the sky and hit someone on the head. As a result, we've seen suggestions such as parachutes, autorotating bodies, and even the ability to fly with one or more failed motors. NASA is now developing a system of its own, in which drones automatically select the best place to land in the event of a malfunction.
Known as Safe2Ditch, the technology would see drones continuously running self-diagnostic checks on themselves while in flight. If any problems were detected, the system would estimate how much longer the aircraft was able to remain airborne – it could also adapt the manner in which the drone was flying, allowing it to "limp" along a little longer.
The system would additionally search a database for locations that the drone could reach within that time, where it would be safe to land. Based on that information, the aircraft would then autonomously perform a landing at the closest such place, using sensors to confirm that no one was standing beneath it.
Landing locations could include areas such as fields, parking lots or parks. In some cases, however, the suitability of them would depend on the time of day – a school yard, for instance, wouldn't be recommended during school hours.
"The technology could significantly reduce the risks of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] flying over populated areas," NASA's Sean Sullivan tells us. "NASA is trying to work with companies that can develop it further for commercial use."
There's more information in the following video.