What will urban air mobility (UAM) look like in the near future? How will electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft share airspace with helicopters, traditional airplanes, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and other unknown proposed aircraft such as personal air vehicles and personal flying devices? These are some of the questions that Airbus’s Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) Blueprint tries to answer.
Safe Shared Urban Air Mobility
In 2017, there were more than 3.5 billion passengers who traveled by air, a tenfold increase in 30 years, according to the World Bank’s database of “Air Transport, Passengers Carried.” That number is only going to increase. And, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in its 2017 report, “2036 Forecast Reveals Air Passengers Will Nearly Double,” there will be 7.8 billion air passengers per year in another 20 years. Consider that today at any given time there are over a million people airborne and you can see how the world’s airspace management needs to become highly flexible and even safer than it already is.
To say that air travel is changing faster than ever before is an understatement. The eVTOL industry is taking off faster than the road-going electric vehicle revolution did a decade ago. The VFS website www.eVTOL.news lists nearly 150 different electric air mobility projects, including at press time: 55 vectored thrust aircraft, 17 lift-plus-cruise platforms, 34 wingless multicopters, 30 hover bikes and personal aerial devices (not including two dozen additional GoFly Phase 2 competitors who have not been announced), and seven electric rotorcraft. And the race is not slowing down.
Advancing aviation technology; autonomy; shrinking batteries, motors and prices; and many other breakthroughs make it possible to conceive of new types of aircraft that break with tradition. Futurists expect that manned and unmanned aircraft will become much cheaper to own and operate — and perhaps become so ubiquitous that they could “darken the skies.”
All of these new aircraft must cooperate in the air. This means better ways of coordinating personal mobility with those of businesses, emergency and government use. How could deconfliction of all these aircraft be handled?
Blueprint Brings Flexibility
In September, A³, the advanced projects outpost of Airbus in Silicon Valley, released its “Blueprint for the Sky: The Roadmap for the Safe Integration of Autonomous Aircraft.” It was developed under the A³ project, Altiscope — later moved under Airbus’s new business unit, Airbus UAM.
Airbus took a cue from the flexible architecture of the internet to develop its concept for how to modernize our airspace coordination and traffic. According to the Blueprint, NASA’s UTM effort — which builds on the legacy of work on manned air traffic management (ATM) to encompass requirements for UAS — has already begun developing a framework to safely manage the growing use of low-altitude airspace for eVTOL aircraft. In addition, Europe has the SESAR Joint Undertaking and is developing its “U-Space” by the European Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc. SESAR — Single European Sky ATM Research — opens the continental market for drone services, modern aircraft design and eVTOLs. Japan is also building a national UTM project, “Japan UTM,” and started demonstration in 2017. NASA’s UTM, SESAR’s U-Space and Japan’s UTM are intended to work together, relying on networked, microserviceoriented system architecture.
The original Altiscope Blueprint is a specification for an action plan that aims to transform airspace for the next generation of aircraft to safely share our airspace. In essence, the Airbus plan is an adaptive blueprint for the skies, flexible enough to meet as-yet unknown air mobility designs.
Safely Integrating Future Aerial Mobility
In a not too distant future, we may see air taxis share space with helicopters, drones and airplanes. These aircraft will fly daily, ferrying passengers and material, act as sky surveillance, and share our airspace with autonomous delivery drones.
Each will have a specific use. For instance, drones can handle imaging and inspection at high and low altitudes. Much of the information gathered will send to cities to free up roads. If everything is to be monitored, from the horizon and beyond, traditional air traffic control and unmanned systems will need to be in constant uninterrupted communication.
The current management of our airspace with air traffic controllers guiding aircraft flights within a specific region cannot support the expected growth of aerial mobility. These new manned and unmanned aircraft flight paths will overwhelm traffic controllers by several orders of magnitude. The answer is a highly scalable system that monitors and manages increased flight activity.
UTM is a complex de-centralized framework of networked services working together, based on common rules. It is designed around future unforeseen applications and designs instead of the traditional centralized control platform. UTM uses a flexible distributed authority to meet tomorrow’s unknown demands. It will quickly adapt as the market evolves. Airbus sees government regulators as ensuring that safety, access and equity are maintained.
Specifically, what this means is that instead of talking to a single air traffic controller, tomorrow’s aircraft will communicate with its service suppliers of choice. Each will be held to a shared set of safety, security and performance standards by the authorities. It will coordinate traffic based on specific flight objectives, turning human air traffic controllers into airspace managers focused on oversight, safety and security.
Another potential benefit of UTM is its adaptability to different geographies. Local governments can tailor regulations to fit their needs. Operators can select from lists of approved service providers. Service providers can design, update and manage their products. And provided that the above stakeholders coordinate with one another, these flexible services will mesh together into the larger national airspace system.”
Tomorrow’s Shared Airspace Must Be Safe and All Inclusive
The Airbus UTM project is divided into two streams of development with controlled airspace and the UTM services network. The first improves the existing airspace coordination for the future and the second develops UTM and U-Space service sets. As soon as drone operations in the second stream show positive results, they may eventually extend into controlled airspace.
As manned and unmanned aircraft increasingly share the skies, global airspace systems must evolve in order to accommodate a mixture of airplanes, helicopters and drones each offering a variety of services. Only by successfully mixing all of these elements can safety be assured.
This means that the systems carrying people and cargo over populated areas must quickly react to accidents. Coordinating tracking, identification and registration is crucial as airspace becomes denser over a populated area. The newly shared airspace will have to quickly manage active risk, deconfliction and emergency alerting, to name a few tasks.
Airbus articulates seven operating principles that will be needed for the future success of air mobility:
Safety and security are paramount.
Airspace must be shared.
Drones must be allowed to self-pilot.
Fleets must be able to self-manage.
Airspace must be harmonized worldwide.
Airspace must be accessible.
Airspace must be future-proof.
Airbus also conducted a survey, “An Assessment of Public Perception of Urban Air Mobility (UAM),” and released its results on Feb. 11. The survey gauged public interest from more than 1,500 residents in Los Angeles, Mexico City, Switzerland and New Zealand. It found 44% are in support of UAM. Additionally, 41% said they believe these aircraft can safely share the air with other vehicles. Among the top concerns for the implementation of UAM were safety for 55.6% of respondents, the type of sound generated from the aircraft for 49.3%, and the volume of sound for 48.8%.
Additional findings, broken down into demographics of those most likely to be accepting of UAM in the future, include:
67% living in Mexico City are likely or very likely to use UAM.
46% living in Los Angeles are likely or very likely to use UAM.
Those respondents most likely to use UAM have an average commute time of 25 minutes, compared to the group least likely to use UAM, whose average commute time is 19 minutes.
Respondents in the 25–34 year age range have the most positive initial reaction, with 55% viewing UAM positively, compared to the 75–84 year age range, which had the least positive initial reaction, with 15% viewing it positively.
Future-proofing air mobility is no easy task, but if sending humans to the moon was possible a half-century ago with less computing power than a modern pocket size calculator, surely managing our future airspace should be attainable. In fact, much of the infrastructure already exists — it just needs to be intelligently integrated to allow for unforeseen aircraft designs and uses. Urban air mobility is coming and we are the lucky ones who will witness its birth.
Copies of the Airbus UTM Blueprint and the Community Perception Study can be downloaded from UTMblueprint.com.
About the Author
Nicolas Zart has written on electric cars, autonomous cars, electric aircraft and other green mobility vehicles since 2007 for various outlets, including CleanTechnica.com.
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