What It Will Take for Urban Air Taxis to Attain Fully Autonomous Flight
Oct. 24, 2019
Discussions about urban air mobility (UAM) and electrically powered vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft have dominated the forward-thinking 2019 NBAA-BACE in Las Vegas. While some urban air taxis appear nearly ready for flight, they all currently lack a key capability that many stakeholders believe is imperative to their success: the ability to fly autonomously, without human intervention. A panel of experts examined the reasons why.
Panelist Suresh Kannan, CEO of autonomy algorithm developer Nodein, noted autonomy should be viewed as a “spectrum,” ranging from Level One autonomy akin to current autopilot systems that still require a pilot monitoring, to full Level Five autonomous control.
“I think [Level Five] is a good level of autonomy we’d all like to get to,” he continued. “One of the reasons everyone is aspiring to full autonomy at some point is it is a key enabler to making this [UAM] industry profitable, and it could actually change the way we live in cities.”
“Autonomy is like raising a child,” added Mike Ingram, vice president and general manager for cockpit systems at Honeywell Aerospace. “You need to do everything for the child after they’re born, but as they grow, they observe the world around them and make decisions, to the point they become autonomous [as adults].”
Ingram compared this process to the evolution of modern aircraft. “We’ve built all these different controls over the years, sensors and high-rate processing capabilities. When all those come together to when an airplane can be given a command to go from point A to point B, without human intervention, that’s autonomy.”
While industry focus has primarily centered on autonomous applications for UAM and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), work is also underway for implementing autonomous functions in manned aircraft.
“We are focusing on two specific applications, single pilot operations and urban mobility,” said Cedric Cocaud, chief engineer at A3, the Silicon Valley-based innovation center for Airbus. “That is not only about putting sensors, computers and software onboard; it’s about the ecosystem around the vehicle, including ground infrastructure, the operator and the customer experience.”
To the latter point, moderator Charles Alcock with Aviation International News noted passengers may balk the first time they climb aboard a UAM and they don’t see “that pilot with a good head of gray hair, who you know has been through some experiences and has learned from them” at the controls of their aerial taxi.
“You always look for the human in the loop to gain trust in a system and who can take over in exceptional situations,” agreed Kannan. “While that may be true for our [older] generation, however, the current generation of millennials and younger generations I feel place more trust in the device.”
Cocaud emphasized that autonomous flight cannot be tackled with the mindset of “solving the big problem right away,” but rather in a measured fashion. “We have to think incrementally, a ‘crawl-walk-run’ approach, which is the typical way that the FAA wants to look at those problems.”
Another significant aspect to enabling autonomous flight is a term familiar to attendees at 2019 NBAA-BACE, and it’s one that is also in the developmental stages. “AI [artificial intelligence] is definitely an enabler for autonomy,” Cocaud said. “It is what will enable us to make the aircraft aware of its surroundings and take the proper decisions from there.”
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