Parimal Kopardekar

Indian American senior technologist for NASA’s Air Transportation System Parimal Kopardekar was named to the top 12 of the 2018 Sammies People’s Choice Award competition. (Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Parimal Kopardekar, a NASA senior technologist for Air Transportation System, was selected as one of the top 12 finalists for the 2018 Sammies People’s Choice Award by the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals on June 1.

Kopardekar is also a principal investigator of the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management at the Moffett Field, Calif.-based NASA Ames Research Center. The Indian American was named a finalist in the Promising Innovation category.

“I am privileged to be nominated as the finalist in the Promising Innovation category of the Samuel J. Hayman,” Kopardekar wrote in an email to India-West.

A report put together by the Heyman Service to America Medals noted that the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that by 2022 there could be more than 700,000 commercial drones flying millions of times a year in low-altitude airspace to deliver packages, monitor traffic, track storms, inspect power lines, aid search and rescue operations and more.

This expected deluge will require a sophisticated air traffic management system for unmanned aircraft—one that will prevent accidents and airborne congestion, and work efficiently to serve public and commercial interests, it said.

At the forefront of this endeavor is Kopardekar, who, with his team of engineers and scientists at NASA, has designed a first-of-its-kind system to safely manage multiple unmanned aerial vehicles flying in the same area at the same time, the report said.

From a $5,000 workshop, he created a program with an $18 million annual budget, and has set the stage for an entire new era in unmanned aviation and the potential to unleash a multibillion dollar U.S. industry.

“PK is the principal architect, researcher and engineer of the unmanned traffic management system,” said Sean Cassidy, director of safety and regulatory affairs at Amazon, one of the private-sector partners collaborating with NASA, the report said.

“He has acted as a catalyst for government and industry, and has brought people together,” Cassidy said.

As a graduate student, Kopardekar became interested in aviation and went to work first for the FAA and then NASA, his bio said.

He started developing a system for managing drones in 2012 and held a conference on drone traffic management issues in 2014. By 2015, a convention on the topic drew nearly 1,500 people and the FAA took notice, it added.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think it would grow this much, this fast,” said Kopardekar in the report.

Kopardekar’s management system goes well beyond the hobbyist playing with a drone in a park. It covers unmanned aircraft flying out of sight and up to 500 feet in the air. The open-source system uses software, the internet and cell service, instead of air traffic controllers, to keep the aircraft spaced apart, according to his bio report.

It allows the drones with onboard sensors and connectivity to share information on where they are going, and it helps them optimize their trajectories based on what else is in the space, it added.

“The small drones are coming,” Kopardekar added. “If they are not supported and you send millions of drones into the sky, it will be unmanageable. This is a chance to study and put together an entirely new system that will have tremendous impact on society. The current way can’t accommodate large-scale operations. We have to change the paradigm.” 

Kopardekar nearly singlehandedly convinced the FAA and private-sector companies to focus on the traffic management system and the need for safety for unmanned aerial systems, according to Steve Bradford, chief scientist at FAA, the report said.

Kopardekar was recently named a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (see India-West story here). 

Voting on the people’s choice award is ongoing, with a top 4 to be announced June 21. Voting closes July 9 with a winner announced July 19.

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