Collaborating to Build a Future Airspace System

At Acubed, many of our first generation innovation projects focused on the key parts required to make Urban Air Mobility (UAM) a reality. We worked on understanding the market demand through Voom; we built and tested a single passenger autonomous eVTOL called Vahana; we also launched a proprietary simulation environment to understand how to build the airspace of the future through Airbus UTM.

Even with this robust set of initial projects, we know that the only way to arrive at a safe future airspace that accommodates more complexity, volume, and a more diverse set of flying platforms is through collaboration with the best and the brightest.

One of the ways we’ve been doing this is through working groups. Some of our team members from Airbus UTM are active participants in NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) Ecosystem Working Groups. These working groups exist to “accelerate the development of safe, high-volume AAM flight operations by bringing together the broad community involved in developing this new capability.” They bring together participants from the private sector to share their experiences to date, while simultaneously discussing obstacles they’ve encountered and possible solutions for the future. These meetings—which continue to happen virtually during the pandemic—are highly specific and extremely valuable.

Two recent topics that the working groups tackled were Weather Sensing, Forecasting and Decision Support and Demand Capacity Balancing.

The importance of weather in the context of vehicle missions

Airbus UTM’s Head of UTM System Design, Scot Campbell, set the tone for the weather working group by underscoring the importance of mission context when it comes to understanding weather information and the gaps that may exist. Given the vast variety of AAM missions, it’s critical to recognize that weather information isn’t one-size-fits-all; the weather data required to support a vehicle to perform mission A may be very different from the requirements of mission B.

There’s a lot that can be learned from the UAM community as well as the manned helicopter community to really understand weather needs. Additionally, it’s vital to factor in proposed concepts of operation and the vision for how these vehicles will be integrated into the airspace. The end goal of every member of the AAM ecosystem is for these vehicles to complete each and every mission safely and efficiently. Doing so means going beyond basic weather sensing and forecasting and truly looking at how weather impacts decision-making and the set of actions that an operator may have available to them.

Fig. 1: Forward-looking ideas to ensure comprehensive applications of weather data for AAM.

Demand capacity balancing goes beyond controller workload

In the latest working group meeting, Tony Evans, Airbus UTM’s Traffic Management System Architect, pointed out that demand capacity balancing is used extensively in traditional aviation, but has not been discussed in detail for UAM and AAM, where it may provide a mechanism for accommodating uncertainty, managing infrastructure and environmental constraints, and in contingency operations. A demand capacity balancing service, tailored to the specific needs of the sector, could be a critical component in ensuring safe and efficient missions.

There was some debate in the session around defining terms. For example, deconfliction: is it a type of demand capacity balancing or is it a separate issue, with demand capacity balancing being a mechanism to support efficient deconfliction? Also, how do you define a resource, and which resources are most likely to be capacity constrained in AAM, and under what conditions? Ensuring that all AAM ecosystem stakeholders are speaking the same language is vital for the future of these working groups and their results. It was agreed that a next step is to explore these questions in detail for specific AAM use cases.

Another topic that the group discussed was the need to accommodate uncertainty when managing demand. Understanding the uncertainties associated with variables such as aircraft constraints, time required to take actions such as boarding, refueling or charging, etc. are key to future planning, and it is essential (and possible) to incorporate real numbers into today’s simulations.

The largest takeaway from these working groups’ recent discussions is the agreement that the path to a modern airspace system cannot be forged alone. As an innovation center here in Silicon Valley, and a part of Airbus at large, our projects are making major progress in enabling our organization to stay ahead of the curve, but when it comes to AAM, we are one part of a large ecosystem that is interdependent and only as strong as its weakest link.

As we continue to work with NASA and others, we’ll keep you updated on the strides the AAM community is making towards a safe and efficient future airspace.

- Paige Wilson