Airbus’ blueprints for a safe urban air infrastructure
Airbus’ Silicon Valley-based operation, A³, flew its Vahana autonomous eVTOL air taxi demonstrator for the first time this year and has since continued flight testing. Meanwhile, Airbus Helicopters is working on the drone-like CityAirbus air taxi concept, which would be piloted initially, but is intended to be autonomous.
On the infrastructure side, A³’s Altiscope project, which the aerospace giant launched in late 2016, assesses policy options and operational models of the future urban airspace and formulates recommendations for the policymakers and regulators who are creating all-new “rules of the road for 3D highways” that new unmanned aircraft system (UAS) traffic management (UTM) systems are to implement.
Steven Ashley interviewed Jessie Mooberry, Head of Deployment for A³ Altiscope, on these and other recent developments:
Q: What kind of urban airspace and air traffic control system does Airbus envision?
A: One of today’s biggest industry challenges is the number and diversity of new types of aircraft being introduced, such as drones and autonomous flying taxis. While the public benefit of self-piloting systems could be massive, there is no infrastructure equipped to accommodate them. Altiscope is designing the architecture required for building safe, efficient, scalable, and futureproof air traffic management (ATM) systems.
ATM systems need to evolve to incorporate a tremendous number of variables—vehicle performance, geography, mission definition, weather, and even factors that have not yet emerged. Altiscope reflects that; we’re already working on discrete projects with several partners on issues like risk modeling and simulating use cases. As we progress, we’ll be gathering new data in the process, and what Altiscope can be used to accomplish will evolve and expand.
Q: How would vehicles talk to each other, react to changes in weather conditions, and so forth?
A: UTM is being designed to ensure safe, efficient flights. Several functions of the UTM will be to provide data to the drone and operator such as weather, terrain, and airspace information. Other functions will be deconflicting flights, managing the flow of aircraft, and ensuring that all flights approved meet acceptable risk thresholds.
Q: Please describe a sample mission in the future urban airspace.
A: The future airspace will be full of drones, urban air mobility services, commercial aircraft, helicopters, and more. It must be structured and managed to ensure safety, equitable access, efficiency, and compatibility with future technology. Right now, we’re focused on providing tools to help better understand and enable the future of aviation.
Example mission: rapidly creating new flight plans in emergencies will become more complex as the number of actors in the airspace increases. Today, an EMS aircraft receives an urgent call and communicates directly with a control center, and the ATC (air traffic control) system shuts down airspace and gives it clearance to fly. Tomorrow, the emergency aircraft will need to push its request throughout the entire network so that it can safely cross existing corridors or other flight paths without conflict. The system will also be robust enough to cope even when communications fail, remaining safe, and allowing emergency operations to continue.
Q: How should this automated airspace system be developed, implemented, and regulated? Will governments lead?
A: Today, there are multiple proposals for modernizing airspace. In the U.S., for example, NASA has proposed its UTM, while in Europe, the SESAR Joint Undertaking—the European public-private partnership that is managing the development phase of the Single European Sky ATM (Air Traffic Management) Research Program—is developing U-space. The underlying principles and approaches of UTM schemes in development around the world are very similar, even though each region uses slightly different terminology and organization; each one consists of distributed systems.
Although these plans paint a picture of a decentralized, coordinated network of services that safely open airspace to new and exciting uses, both leave implementation details open.
We’re currently talking to many countries around the world and using our tools to support their efforts. These tools have included drone volume estimation models, airspace simulations, and microservices such as a flight logging software. Each tool is different. The volume estimation tool, for example, was released to our e-mail list under open-source licensing. Our flight logging tool, which is also open source, can be accessed at here. And finally, our simulator is used by our team internally to conduct studies on airspace configuration.
For implementation and regulation, there is tremendous need for collaboration between regulators and the industry. We are very proud to support policymakers to enable the future of aviation.