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Today marks another day of progress for hundreds of software engineers working worldwide on the challenge of how to create reliable and highly-flexible digital infrastructure for the coming eVTOL age.
Which types of eVTOL traffic will need digital infrastructure in place first? Many industry experts agree that sizable flight volumes will first emerge in cargo eVTOL flights from major airports to goods distribution centers, and on the passenger side, flights between regional and international airports.
But urban air mobility (UAM) in some major cities like Los Angeles, Paris, and Shanghai are also expected to be volume leaders — and digital infrastructure there will be built on the existing management framework for helicopter flights.
UAM with helicopters is already happening today in the greater cityscapes of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, for example. There, wealthier consumers are willing to pay for flights from various points to the airport, and so on — flights that save them hours over ground transport on road, rail and ferries.
“We foresee that many of the initial eVTOL flights will run on helicopter routes,” explained Stella-Marissa Hughes, leader of advanced air mobility strategy, business development and partnerships at CAE.
NASA engineer Kurt Swieringa agreed that initial smaller scale eVTOL operations are expected to look very similar to today’s helicopter operations. But existing helicopter digital infrastructure, if it can even be described as such, will need an overhaul.
”The management of today’s helicopter flights needs improvement,” Hughes said. “This is a global issue. We need fully-digitized, unified systems with a single source of truth so that companies can maximize efficiencies and make systemwide decisions. There are part 135 solutions out there but they are discrete and not capable of handling the higher volumes of UAM movements forecasted in the future, with the very tight timing that will be required to ensure profitability.”
NASA’s outlook is similar. “We envision a system that includes digital communications, airspace services and aircraft automation to enable higher density eVTOL operations to be safely integrated into the airspace,” Swieringa said. “This is consistent with the vision the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] has expressed in its Info-Centric NAS [National Airspace System] vision and version two of its UAM concept of operations.”
Automation and more data
In early eVTOL flight management, the industry will rely on existing air traffic control systems, Hughes said, but both the operational control center of each eVTOL company and air traffic control itself will need a great deal of automation as UAM operations scale up.
“It’s important to harmonize how the vehicles talk to each other and also ensure everyone can access and benefit from data for these corridors,” she noted. “And we need to collect more data, for example, data on localized weather patterns. There is some weather data collection at airports today, but this is not nearly enough because eVTOLs will be operating at low altitudes and be more sensitive to microclimate impacts.”
CAE already works with over 80 airlines and helicopter operators to digitally manage and improve their operations, and is starting to offer them support with the future integration of eVTOLs.
“We have regular customer advisory board [CAB] sessions across the world in Asia, Europe, and North America for all our existing CAE flight services customers to make sure we are on track with meeting customer needs,” Hughes said. “This year, at our September CAB taking place in Montreal, we will be holding sessions on how to tailor our existing flight operations solutions to support the eVTOL market.”
He said the CAB will discuss digital infrastructure challenges and solutions that will address harmonization and support for the whole ecosystem.
“To keep costs low, we need to cut redundancies. We also need to prepare to manage charging time and flight disruptions and optimize flight timing for new factors that don’t exist today, spanning crew availability, vertiport access, weather, and so on,” Hughes said. “You need data integration and updating in real-time to make the go/no-go decisions that will minimize costs and maximize customer satisfaction. Digital tools are critical to manage all these different work flows and enable rapid recovery from disruptions with accuracy and compliance.”
NASA is involved in several research efforts to enhance the air traffic management system and enable routine eVTOL operations. “NASA is focused on researching many elements of the system, alongside industry and the FAA, to help push forward the industry as a whole for the benefit of all,” Swieringa said.
He added that for eVTOLs to become a common transportation mode, there are several infrastructures, airspace management, and aircraft systems that will need to be integrated. “Many of these systems,” he said, “will be built or managed by different companies or organizations.”
One company building its own digital infrastructure system is Volocopter. VoloIQ will not only manage everything to do with UAM flights, but also integrate crew booking, customer flight booking, predictive aircraft maintenance and more across the totality of the firm’s operations.
For customers, VoloIQ will not just allow booking a VoloCity flight but also booking a cab or another transport option after the flight.
How did the need for VoloIQ emerge? Klaus Seywald, head of digital strategy and VoloIQ, said he and his colleagues began with looking at the service Volocopter wants to offer and its target operating model.
“When we screened the market for potential solutions, it became apparent that our requirements are particular to the newly-emerging UAM market, and there were no ready-made solutions that we could implement,” he explained.
What Volocopter requires in VoloIQ is extensive. It must factor in brand-new regulatory requirements such as SC-VTOL within many processes, including flight planning. It must manage shorter flights and higher volumes in short time windows with little buffer in terms of airspace and vertiport availability, flight delays and more.
A strong degree of flexibility in VoloIQ is also needed in addressing the shorter booking lead times compared to commercial airlines, as well as constant changes in demand for flights (peak and off-peak volumes).
Creating this unique solution integrating commercial service with operations “allows us to provide highly flexible offerings to the market,” Seywald said, “from on-demand, scheduled or mixed operations, while also simultaneously efficiently utilizing all resources such as aircraft and batteries.”
Ready for automated flight
VoloIQ will also enable Volocopter to be ready for autonomous operation in the future. Although the final go/no-go decision will be up to each pilot from the start, VoloIQ will make go/no-go proposals to pilots based on data such as weather, connecting flight delays, and aircraft status.
“Furthermore, the system supports the pilot during the flight to correctly assess risks like remaining energy, as well as provide automated recommendations on the closest emergency landing site if needed,” Seywald reported. “We envision that in future generations, more of these recommendations will become increasingly automated which the pilot simply confirms or denies. We will take a step-by-step approach to tightly integrate our cloud system with aircraft avionics in future generations of aircraft to make the job of the pilot easier and eventually leading to autonomous flying.”
Indeed, Volocopter is “developing a multi-redundant connectivity solution to transmit data between the aircraft, the cloud and edge systems efficiently and reliably, for example, transmitting flight data during operations,” Seywald explained.
In terms of challenges to complete this system, Seywald listed what one would expect: evolving regulations and keeping costs under control. However, returning to those critical software engineers mentioned earlier, recruiting and retaining isn’t a big issue for Volocopter.
Seywald reported that the company is fortunate to have a dedicated team of exceptionally talented individuals making “tremendous” ongoing progress toward the company’s entry into service.
“We have offices in Berlin and Hamburg to be able to get better access to the talent pool and for them to efficiently interact with each other,” he added. “Also, our software engineers are attracted by the complexity and challenge to solve a new kind of problem, which gives us an advantage over the general industry.”