Researchers in Europe are exploring several emerging technologies which could potentially find applications in the eVTOL domain — including Li-Fi, advanced imaging for automatic landing, and tactile touchscreens.
Although the studies by the EU Clean Sky program are not tailored primarily for eVTOL — they are part of its Disruptive Cockpit for Large Passenger Aircraft initiative — there is clear potential for these technologies in the eVTOL sector.
Li-Fi (Light-Fidelity), a technology introduced in 2011 during a TED talk by Professor Harald Haas from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, is a form of fully networked wireless communications hailed as a prospective successor to Wi-Fi.
Li-Fi uses light rather than radio frequency to transmit data. It works by fluctuating the current passing through an LED bulb at a speed far faster than the human eye can register, with a remote processor converting the signals into a data stream.
Clean Sky is developing functional prototypes of Li-Fi-enabled headsets and a compatible tablet. A prototype headset will be tested by the end of 2019. Initial lab tests have demonstrated throughput of 36 Mbit/s downlink and 22 Mbit/s uplink, Clean Sky says.
The upcoming full demonstration of the prototype headset intends to show the technology’s ability to support critical applications such as audio communications between pilot and air traffic control and show Li-Fi is mature enough to go the next development stage.
Speaking to eVTOL.com, Sébastien Dubois, head of the Clean Sky 2 program at Clean Sky, explained that Li-Fi can “better control the number of users who can access information” because a Li-Fi beam has a shorter wavelength and devices can only interact with Li-Fi in the area where the light source carrying the information is emitted.
Dubois said: “What we need to secure in the cockpit are wireless communications. We need to avoid any potential risk of hacking and ensure operations without any risk of interruption from external sources. [With Li-Fi] we can protect the environment and limit an application to users without any risk of hacking. The risk of intrusion is close to zero.”
Although Clean Sky’s Li-Fi research is not intended for eVTOL specifically, Dubois told eVTOL.com: “I would say anywhere where there is a need for wireless connectivity and higher security, Li-Fi may have an application.”
Some other Clean Sky research projects also offer potential for eVTOL, most notably IMBALS (IMage BAsed Landing Solutions), which aims to demonstrate how data extracted from images collected from cameras on the aircraft and from onboard sensors can be merged to provide an image-based automatic landing system that will enable an aircraft to operate independently from ground-based infrastructure.
IMBALS is relevant to eVTOL because most systems in this domain will operate in environments such as city centers where there are no specialist ground-based precision instrument landing aids.
IMBALS aims to develop a proof-of-concept system by 2022. Partners in the project — started in March 2018 and currently in its initial phase — have already conducted early assessments and collected video footage to develop and test algorithms. Tekever delivered a version of its video player to stream footage, while Airbus and KU Leuven demonstrated image processing algorithms.
“The consortium partners now have a good understanding of the key challenges in terms of verifiability and integrity of the data extracted from the images, and work has started on the principles that will address those challenges,” said Heikki Deschacht, Expert Innovation Programs at Scioteq Belgium, an IMBALS consortium coordinator.
Another Clean Sky research project with potential relevance for eVTOL is LAPARTS (Large Passenger Aircraft Reliable Touch Screen), which intends to demonstrate and validate tactile touchscreen control panels for systems management.
“The idea is to replace existing onboard panels and directly bring functions into the touchscreen which are scalable and user-friendly to simplify the cockpit,” Dubois told eVTOL.com.
A key challenge, he said, is to ensure touchscreen controls mimic the functionality of existing critical systems to guarantee operations. LAPARTS needs to ensure a touchscreen system can sense a button press, communicate a positive acknowledgement of a deployed button, and ensure a pilot can detect the status of buttons when adverse conditions such as cockpit smoke obscure visual cues.
With single-pilot operations intended for many eVTOL systems, there is clear relevance between this research to ensure systems meet safety criteria and the development of eVTOL.
Dubois emphasized to eVTOL.com that while it is “exciting” to see these and other emerging technologies such as big data or artificial intelligence, operability in a safety-critical environment matters above all.
“The question is not whether we can make it, the question is ensuring we can make it to ensure the same level of safety as we currently have,” he said.