Airbus UTM’s USim Brings Advanced Simulation Technology to Researchers Exploring Future Traffic Management Operations

To better understand tomorrow’s skies, Airbus UTM is developing a proprietary simulation environment called USim to explore how future airspace will operate. USim not only allows researchers to explore the unknown, but recent advances have made the technology a useful and cost-effective tool for the aerospace industry to understand and develop a safe and sustainable Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) framework.

Assessing the performance of future airspace – with thousands of drone deliveries and air taxis, for example – is an important, but challenging task, and the new and evolving technologies of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) pose a variety of challenges to tomorrow’s air traffic management systems. These challenges require solutions today that are increasingly automated and digitized.

Airbus UTM’s USim provides a digital twin of each element in the UTM ecosystem. This digital twin technology allows UTM stakeholders to test individual services and verify interoperability between existing ones – all without the real-world consequences of system failures.

Solutions in Simulation

At its core, Usim simulates vehicles and operators, allowing researchers to explore fundamental aspects of flight operations like flight planning and impacts of navigation error and other noise on vehicle performance. However, USim also includes a set of prototype UTM services, enabling researchers to simulate more operationally relevant scenarios, applying concepts such as strategic deconfliction and measuring implications in terms of outcomes like safety, efficiency and fairness. These simulation capabilities allow researchers to explore the UTM framework that will enable future operations to take flight.

The UTM framework for tomorrow’s airspace is evolving with guidance from NASA, the FAA, EASA, EUROCONTROL and more than 100 other stakeholders. As a federated system, it relies on the distributed management of airspace. Rather than operating under a centralized management and control authority, UTM is instead served by a network of entities and service providers that manage traffic based on negotiation, the sharing of data, common regulations and authoritative data. The presence of these varied entities, each with its own priorities, adds an additional layer of complexity to understanding tomorrow’s UTM challenges. Simulation provides an indispensable tool to explore and assess this complexity.

Exploring UTM in a simulated environment allows researchers to both create a big-picture view of future airspace and generate detailed data from the perspective of myriad stakeholders – from small drone operators to commercial air traffic – and generate reliable data to inform UTM industry standards.

Thanks to advances in computing power, researchers using USim can generate this library of data, not only testing for a wide range of variables, but doing so at scale. Running thousands of test flights in the real world would be costly and impractical, but USim can simulate thousands of flight hours quickly, allowing for thousands of operations to be simulated in a short period of time and providing statistically reliable data from which meaningful conclusions can be drawn.

With advances in machine learning, researchers can also explore the properties of a trade space with greater efficiency. When stress testing a system, for example, machine learning facilitates identifying and exploring failure scenarios in simulation that would otherwise be difficult for researchers to anticipate.

Service-Based System

Advances in cloud computing now allow simulation to be offered in a new way to touch a wider spectrum of the aerospace industry. Rather than utilizing simulation to simply develop and package services that would become obsolete in the face of evolving UAS technologies, researchers can instead use it as a collaborative tool. Employing digital twin technology using a software as a service (SaaS) approach enables future stakeholders to benefit from an agile simulated environment. With SaaS access, stakeholders can be part of the development of a sustainable UTM framework and make informed decisions about the impact of regulatory requirements and developing UTM services.

So, via simulation, researchers can not only visualize an array of vehicles and operators, but stakeholders can access and test the interoperability of their systems with other stakeholders. This sophistication and collaboration leads to a better understanding of UTM infrastructure, enabling researchers and stakeholders to rely on the digital twin technology as a tool for identifying unforeseen challenges and developing an effective UTM ecosystem.

USim is already being utilized to validate and develop NASA concepts of operation for Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) operations in the United States. Partnering with Metron Aviation (an Airbus-owned company), Airbus UTM participated in NASA’s AAM National Campaign as one of seven industry partners selected for a round of airspace simulations to test an airspace management system that allows partners to safely and collaboratively manage their operations. This is an important step in informing AAM procedures and encouraging public confidence in emerging aviation markets.

Airbus UTM has also employed USim in collaboration with EUROCONTROL to study the safety and performance of future U-Space operations in Europe, and to demonstrate the role of simulation to support U-space airspace assessment. U-Space is a set of regulations and services aimed at facilitating safe, efficient and secure large-scale drone access to European airspace. It is scheduled to go into effect in 2023. USim has further been applied in the context of the European ATM R&D program (SESAR). For example, USim has been used in the AURA project to conduct fast-time simulation exercises that have served as early validation of key elements of the integration of U-Space in controlled airspace. This collaboration is happening alongside Airbus UTM research with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, which is exploring a critical safety gap in UTM development, and illustrating simulation’s value as a tool in UTM’s operationalization.

Sustainability in the Future

Simulation will not replace flight tests, but the data it can generate will provide a detailed picture of future airspace, making flight tests safer and more efficient. Rather than simply creating a service, Airbus UTM’s Usim supports the development of UTM infrastructure itself, with advances in simulation technology allowing researchers and stakeholders to jointly develop and integrate emerging UAS with greater agility, ensuring safer, more efficient future skies.

- Scot Campbell