Examining the first phases of airborne street traffic

October 18, 2017  - By

It’s been a couple of months since we ran an update on unmanned aircraft, so there are lots of news items to dust off and maybe look at more closely.

I suppose we’ve all seen those futuristic movies with masses of orderly air traffic traveling rapidly down invisible roads hundreds of feet above cities — maybe the Jetsons first got us thinking about this vision of tomorrow? Well, unmanned flying taxi demos in Dubai certainly caught my attention. Could this be the launch of the first phase of “airborne street traffic”?

Demo UAVs in Dubai, China

The two-seater UAV built by Volocopter demonstrated in Dubai has 18 rotors, and during the five-minute demo for the media, Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed was flown at around 200 meters over sand, rather than over a populated city. There surely could be a number of safety elements yet to be implemented before we see this become operational — but you have to start somewhere.

The Volocopter demo was preceded at the beginning of this year by the appearance of a single-seat Chinese demo vehicle. This smaller eight-rotor drone by EHang took a shot at being a future “over-city” cab.

Urbain Air Project

In the meantime, Airbus and HAX, a start-up investor, are seeking innovators to participate in a four-month program to advance developments in urban-air mobility — innovations which could speed-up development of “flying cars.”

The project is looking for technologies already being developed in:

  • Urban air transport vehicle technology
  • UAV sense and avoid technology
  • Airport runway and landing detection systems
  • Emergency safety systems for airborne vehicles
  • Required infrastructure for airborne transport vehicles
  • Autonomous airborne vehicle technology
  • Aerial maneuver decision making and support systems
  • Air traffic management systems
  • Aerial collision detection and avoidance systems
  • Battery packaging and management systems for airborne vehicles

Several startups could be funded with at least $100,000 each, and will be asked to spend four months in Shenzhen, China, turning their concepts into prototypes with support from HAX and Airbus engineers.

Safety Standards?

All interesting stuff, but at some stage someone has to take a serious look at the safety standards needed to protect prospective passengers. The existing designs appear to have some flight control redundancy, and there are hints of a possible loss of data-link reversionary mode, but there might be more significant work to be done before any regulatory agency such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were to validate system reliability. But good luck to these innovators and other companies who are working towards implementing this fascinating concept.

At the other end of the drone spectrum, Renishaw Canada recently showed off a drone made of titanium and produced using 3D printing.

The Firefly is a 3D-printed titanium rocket-powered drone that can fly at nearly supersonic speeds, with onboard telemetry and a spring-released wing. The Mach 0.8 drone has been produced by the Renishaw additive manufacturing group for an unnamed North American aerospace company. The drone can apparently house a number of miniaturized sensors for data collection.

Possible applications of this unique high-speed, short-duration drone could include data collection flying into storms and hurricanes, or perhaps for longer distance surveying when launched from a future Mars rover.

Boeing Acquires Aurora Flight

And on the business front, the recent news is that Boeing is in the process of acquiring Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. Adding Aurora as an independent operation alongside Insitu will probably lead to migration of technology between the two Boeing UAS units, which is presumably why Aurora is being acquired.

Aurora has focused on electric propulsion systems and automation and autonomy for robotic operations and UAVs. Aurora has also collaborated with Boeing in the past on rapid prototyping for drones, and structural assemblies for military and commercial applications.

As a unit of the Boeing Company, Aurora technologies for long-endurance aircraft, robotic co-pilots, and autonomous electric multi-rotor UAVs will have a better opportunity to make it to product level, and wider applications should be possible for these unique capabilities.

Based in Manassas, Virginia, with facilities and offices in five other states around the United States — including R&D facilities right next to Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge — Aurora employees more than 550 people. They also have an office in Luzern, Switzerland.

FAA Regulations Revisited

Finally, according to AUVSI, in the year since the FAA released the Part 107 regulations for the operation of small UAS (sUAS), users have requested more than 1,000 waivers to work outside the parameters of these regulations. The Part 107 regulations permit users to request such waivers, provided operations can be shown to be safe. The majority of these waiver requests were to operate at night — whereas the regulations only permit operation within Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) in daylight.

AUVSI argues that certain commercial operations have only been possible through the use of these waivers, and therefore the regulations should be revised to enable normal operations without the need to grant individual waivers on a case-by-case basis. The FAA’s position may be that until such operations can be proven to be safe over time, the agency wants to know who’s exceeding which parameters, and under what conditions — hence the need for individual written applications, so that analysis of safety aspects is possible. Then subsequent monitoring will show that levels of operation may be safely exceeded on a regular basis.

This is how aviation agencies have always managed aviation safety. A UAS operator might demonstrate operational capabilities, show an acceptable safety level, and thereby prove that pushing the envelope is okay. Sometimes it can take time, but with good visibility on both sides, it’s possible that progress could be made reasonably quickly.

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).