Opinion: How To Achieve Diverse And Inclusive Advanced Air Mobility
In less than a century, powered flight has progressed from risky adventure to routine transportation mode.
Today’s aircraft host fly-by-wire avionics, automation and increasingly trusted data link capabilities. Pilots and air traffic controllers are classically trained, yet technologies supporting inflight autonomy and data services advance each day. Legacy aircraft and operations will continue, and new aircraft and operations also must be supported. Small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) carrying cameras and decorative lights will increasingly populate our low-altitude skies to collect data and entertain; midsize UAS will routinely carry packages directly to the customer. Larger air taxi platforms will become fully autonomous, safely carrying a family across town.
Advanced air mobility (AAM) calls for technologies, standards and protocols to accommodate new entrants as well as legacy operations. Technology development is fast, but regulatory change is slow. As a result, legacy operational practices are difficult to evolve. The aerospace industry establishes and grows aviation business models, but how do we make sure individual aircraft are reliable, efficient and safe? How do we assure aircraft do not collide with each other or terrain? How do we design the next-generation airspace and information backbone to maximize situational awareness and coordinate decisions for all participants?
We can answer these questions with technology and community-established standards. But there is more—a lot more—to consider as we pursue AAM for everyone.
Consider the diverse suite of AAM operations shown in the graphic. Passenger and cargo transport, emergency services and general aviation (GA) have established a legacy of safe and efficient operations. GA pilots have enjoyed the “little airplane, big sky” notion for over a century, but they know they will be asked to share the sky. Emergency services flights need to cut a clear and direct priority route through nearby traffic that might otherwise introduce a conflict. We are consuming more packages, data and on-demand entertainment each year, creating a landscape of new AAM use cases. Soon, the sky will not seem so big, particularly near urban centers and in high-demand transit corridors.
Small steps from legacy operations to AAM have been taken, slowly. Government entities in collaboration with industry have proposed the creation of a segregated low-altitude airspace layer managed by a UAS traffic management (UTM) system. By restricting UAS flight to below 400 ft. and away from airport traffic patterns, commercial transport aircraft can conduct business as usual with legacy equipment and protocols. Infrequent rotorcraft operations, such as for emergency services, can still be prioritized and manually routed through UTM airspace as needed.
But there is a big problem. New airspace entrants will be frequent and diverse. Passengers in air taxis will not be safe cruising at high speed lower than 400 ft., and numerous vertiports will be positioned in and around each urban center. Air traffic controllers can manage several aircraft organized in approach and departure queues, but people lose situational awareness when presented with a myriad of three-dimensional intersecting routes for aircraft flying at different speeds.
This diverse traffic mix will require migration to comprehensive autonomy, data link and cloud-based data management systems capable of coordinating flight plans, assuring aircraft follow approved flight plans and deconflicting traffic in real time as needed.
To achieve an inclusive AAM system, we must get autonomy and data management right. Fortunately, a host of investors, companies and government entities are dedicated to solving the associated technology development and safety assurance challenges.
Suppose we have matured the necessary autonomy and data management technologies to realize one cloud (information access for all AAM users) and one sky (integrated airspace access for all AAM users). We must then address new challenges in equitable airspace allocation and social impact.
AAM’s trusted autonomy with data link will reliably clear a priority path with unprecedented efficiency. However, the rest requires long-term cooperation with communities and users. How do we balance immediate airspace access for a package versus for a passenger? A GA sightseer punching a hole in the sky versus a photographer capturing a stunning sunset from the air? There are so many dreams for flight. AAM with one cloud, one sky and many users will help us realize them all.
Ella M. Atkins is a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan and an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Fellow.
The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.