Stakeholders across the emerging eVTOL ecosystem are taking measured approaches to permit burgeoning numbers of urban air mobility vehicles to safely operate in national airspaces. Group Editor Marty Kauchak highlights efforts to strengthen air traffic management systems to permit sharing airspace. 

  • Automated aircraft in development are not synchronized in a harmonious ATM system (because the system does not yet exist)
  • FAA adopting risk-based approach with new Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation

“The short-to-mid-term challenge in the airspace will be increased demand and capacity-balancing in the areas where these eVTOL services start to become popular,” believes Todd Donovan, Vice President Airspace Mobility Solution for the Americas at Thales. He noted the main challenges facing eVTOLs in the next five years are more related to aircraft certification, business model, societal acceptance and ground infrastructure (vertiports) rather than airspace access.

“Most potential eVTOL operators have shifted toward an ‘optionally crewed’ approach, which allows them to operate with a crew much like helicopter operations today in order to ease the certification and approval challenges,” he explained.

Donovan emphasized, “Existing ATM systems can handle this challenge. If eVTOL operations scale substantially in the mid-to-long-term and/or the operating concept moves from piloted to autonomous operations, then additional challenges will emerge related to human factors for air traffic controllers, the interaction between human-in-the-loop and autonomous systems, and managing ad hoc operations (as compared to air traffic that is mainly scheduled operations today).”

Thales views the airspace as integrated and not segregated – a perspective shared by other community stakeholders. Donovan added, while many of today’s drone experiments and pilot projects rely on some form of airspace segregation to ensure safety, this will not be the end state.

Thales’s wide-ranging competencies in the global ATM community include the installation of more than 900 air traffic control radars around the world. 

Donovan pointed out Thales is leveraging its experience as a solution architect and leading system-of-systems designer to develop solutions that offer its customers increased flexibility, openness, and trust, while also supporting evolutionary steps of the systems that they have trusted for many years. “We developed an initial ATM-UTM [Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management] concept of operations several years ago that addresses the short-to-mid-term challenges without substantial impact to existing ATM systems. We are also collaborating closely with our sister companies, who are leading providers of avionics, streaming data analytics, and digital identity and security to address the operational flexibility that drone operators want, the data management challenges that drones at scale will present, and the trust and security that is required to ensure safety in the increasingly connected world of drones,” he added. 

Thales has a large portfolio of drone-related projects around the world, including France, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. In the US, Thales has active projects with NASA, the FAA and various states and UAS test sites. “As an example, the state of North Dakota announced the selection of Thales as their long-term partner for building and operating Vantis, North Dakota’s statewide unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) network, the first of its kind in the nation,” Donovan noted, and concluded, “This public-private partnership will be instrumental in enabling BVLOS operations, under the regulatory oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration. As a system-of-systems architect, Thales is blending our internal market-leading capabilities with a portfolio of capable partners to satisfy the emerging market needs – this includes both traditional Thales partners, like Terma, as well as startups such as Airspace Link and uAvionix.”

US NAS FAA-NASA Collaboration

Preparing national airspaces and their ATM foundations for the rigors of hosting additional and varied aircraft and vehicles in the near future is also on the policy list of aviation regulatory agencies. 

In the US, a spokesperson at FAA said the agency is taking a risk-based approach to assessing regulatory requirements for safely integrating these eVTOLs and other new aircraft models into the National Airspace System (NAS). Among other things, the FAA is assessing requirements for proposed aircraft operations, safety, aircraft handling, and impacts and flight crew training and qualifications.

FAA has a number of internal and collaborative activities in progress to assess and implement these specific regulatory requirements. 

In one instance, the FAA can certify new technologies, such as eVTOLs, through its existing regulations. The spokesperson further explained the FAA had established the Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation (CECI) to help safely introduce eVTOLs and other new, innovative products by engaging early with applicants to develop clear paths toward meeting certification requirements. “Some certifications could require the FAA to issue special conditions or additional airworthiness criteria, depending on the type of project. We also continue to work with applicants to establish appropriate requirements for new features and designs.”

More important, the FAA is partnering with multiple external organizations to safely integrate eVTOLs into the NAS. One effort finds the administration also working with UAS service suppliers to develop air traffic management systems that will integrate Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) vehicles (the new FAA umbrella term for eVTOLs and other innovative vehicles) into the US airspace. At the same time, FAA is also working with NASA to co-lead the AAM Project National Campaign to help integrate AAM vehicles into the National Airspace System (NAS) and develop advanced air traffic management systems. This effort includes, “collaborating with NASA’s Aeronautics Research Institute on UAS traffic management for future eVTOL concepts and services,” the FAA headquarters-based spokesperson added. 

Several points are worth noting. First is the continued interest by eVTOL ecosystem stakeholders to educate and inform the public about this market space’s emergence. Indeed, the AAM Project National Campaign Overview notes, “The Advanced Air Mobility project’s National Campaign will promote public confidence and accelerate the realization of emerging aviation markets for passenger and cargo transportation in urban, suburban, rural, and regional environments.”

Other Regional ATM Efforts

Outside the US, EmbraerX’s Eve Urban Air Mobility is collaborating on an Urban Air Traffic Management project with the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to develop a scalable environment needed to host UAM flights. Beginning with simulated flights from London City Airport to Heathrow, the consortium will generate data to inform the UK’s civil aviation authority on potential separation standards, the efficacy of dedicated flight corridors, design considerations for airspace solutions, and expected airspace capacity.

Consortium partners include the UK’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS), infrastructure operator Skyports, UK-based eVTOL developer Vertical Aerospace, Germany’s Volocopter, London’s Heathrow (LHR) and London City Airport (LCY), and Embraer’s air traffic management subsidiary Atech.

David Rottblatt, Vice-President of Business Development at Eve, stated, “Our solution prioritizes a procedures-based approach toward growing UAM operations while minimizing impacts on air traffic control. This concept has been developed with a close eye on community needs and the principles of human-centered design. UAM flights will affect neighborhoods, municipal transportation plans, infrastructure and commercial real estate investment, and more. It is critical that these voices are heard and that stakeholder concerns are considered at the outset.”

The Brazilian executive added, “UATM provides a structured traffic management system with a single airspace authority. It is explicitly designed to organize traffic flows, mitigate risks in the air and on the ground, and support safety-critical situations when needed. As the UATM system evolves, it may eventually integrate all UAS operations so that all low-altitude aircraft – piloted and autonomous – operate within a single system.”

German startup Skyroads, developer of an automated air traffic management and guidance system, has recently released a white paper on UAM which focuses on four key subjects:

  • First, the ‘chicken-egg’ problem, that automated aircraft in development are not being synchronized with each other in a harmonious system (since that system does not yet exist); 
  • Second, now is the time to begin creating those flight management systems; 
  • Third, key players in the aerial mobility industry should come together to agree on industry-wide rules that allow for interoperable systems: and 
  • Fourth, although OEMs are building the aircraft of the future, they are not likely to build the ‘roads in the sky’. 

Skyroads CEO Corvin Huber said consensus on either rules or standards “needs to be resolved in close collaboration between regulators, the air vehicle industry and technology providers. Mercedes, GM and Toyota build great cars, but they have never built a road.”

As observed in infrastructure and other parts of the evolving eVTOL sector, collaboration is a linchpin to achieving successes in building next generation ATMs and crafting their overarching national air spaces. 

Aliona Groh, Director, Marketing and Communications at Australia-based air traffic control training specialist Adacel, said her company is definitely closely monitoring the progress in the industry as it relates to eVTOLs and UAS. “We are currently engaging with some industry peers to explore options and opportunities, and are reviewing our systems’ roadmaps to meet these emerging demands for training in air traffic management.”