Welcome to Wayfinder!
In a world where annual air travel volume is expected to double by 2036 (to 7.8B passengers from 4B in 2017) and the number of pilots cannot scale quickly enough to meet that demand (450K - 870K pilots are expected to be needed), adaptable, autonomous systems will be required to provide an alternative solution.
At Wayfinder, the latest project to launch out of Airbus’ Silicon Valley Innovation Center, Acubed, we aim to develop scalable, certifiable autonomy systems to enable self-piloted aircraft applications. These systems — vital to the busy future of air transportation — will be usable across Airbus, from small urban air vehicles such as air taxis to large commercial airplanes for which teams are already investigating single pilot operations.
Figure 1: An Airbus A320neo, from the world’s most advanced and fuel-efficient single-aisle aircraft family.
This project began within Vahana, an early Acubed project and current Airbus Urban Air Mobility (UAM) eVTOL demonstrator that has recently completed its 50th successful test flight. The Wayfinder team developed the sense and avoid system that Vahana has been testing since the project began at Acubed in 2016. Over those years, it became clear that the sense and avoid system (specifically for the developed technologies and processes) could have greater impact across the Airbus organization especially with respect to commercial aircraft.
We launched Wayfinder to meet these broader needs and did so within Acubed to take advantage of the unique ecosystem of Silicon Valley — a place where speed of execution, agility, talent, and automotive synergies combine enabling Wayfinder to excel faster. Our ambition is to provide both near-term and long-term value to Airbus and, in doing so, contribute to the organization’s ongoing position as the leading aerospace company, as well as one practicing innovation in unique and exciting ways.
Where We Stand
Our primary focus today is on developing a common set of software and hardware that we can use in a scalable way for a range of aircraft. To actually create such a system, we are concentrating on three main categories that need to be explored for a future with safe, self-piloted flight: Technology, Data-Driven Development Processes, and Safety.
Figure 2: Photorealistic simulation allows Wayfinder to rapidly train and test neural networks on large, scalable, and highly customizable datasets. Here we simulate a forward facing camera on final approach to runway 9 at San Diego International Airport. Our neural network architecture is able to detect runways and runway markings, as well as the remaining distance to the runway and vertical and lateral deviations from the nominal approach flight path.
For autonomous systems the technology is divided between software and hardware.
Software enables the aircraft to perceive the environment around it and decide how best to proceed. At the core of our software are perception methods based on both machine learning algorithms and traditional computer vision. We use the best techniques that have been developed for other applications such as image recognition and self-driving cars, and expand them to the requirements of autonomous flight. We also develop decision-making software to safely navigate this world that we sense around the aircraft.
Hardware includes the suite of sensors and powerful computer required to feed and run our software. We are partnering with the leaders in autonomous vehicle sensors and computing to mold their products to fit our needs. In particular, we are bringing the expertise of Airbus in certifying aircraft and their systems to help our partners meet the rigorous requirements on hardware to ensure safe and reliable operation in the air.
Figure 3: Experimental sensor configuration on Vahana Alpha demonstrator vehicle, including cameras, radar, and lidar.
Data-Driven Development Processes
Much like flight testing of new, demonstrator aircraft, we anticipate that the development of autonomous aircraft will be an iterative process. Starting with an application of the autonomous system in a limited environment, we will train the system to fully understand that environment, and then expand the environmental envelope over time. Our iterations will include a cycle of massive data collection followed by system testing, subsequent development, and then verification of system safety. Once each new iteration has been verified, it will be deployed to start the next cycle of data collection and continuous improvement of the system performance.
In keeping with Airbus’ long history of safe and certified aircraft, safety is at the core of all our activities. Everything we work on must pass rigorous testing to ensure what we create is not only revolutionary but certifiable and secure. Our dedication to safety coupled with our accelerated pace of innovation is Wayfinder’s biggest differentiator in the increasingly crowded urban air mobility market.
Personally, my background is in autonomous cars and ground-based robots, but thanks to the sheer wonder inspired by the thought of extending autonomy into the third dimension I am now fortunate enough to lead this project. When I think about how we will impact how humans travel and, as a result, interrelate, I cannot wait to get to work everyday. We’re actively looking to add new members to the Wayfinder team who embody this same spirit.
We’re working to develop products that have never been built before, and are looking for team members who are inspired by this challenge and seek to build the future, not just contribute to the present. If that sounds like you, please apply to any of our open positions or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Arne Stoschek, Project Executive, Wayfinder