By Brent Bundy

Brent spent more than 29 years with the Phoenix Police Department, 20 of those with the Air Support Unit. A helicopter and airplane pilot, he also headed up the unit’s tactical flight officer programs. He has been a photojournalist for various publications for the past decade.


A look inside Honeywell’s new state-of-the-art AAM research and development lab

Honeywell’s research and development work in the advanced air mobility (AAM) space has caught the attention of major eVTOL players in the industry, including U.K.-based Vertical Aerospace and German startup Lilium. To continue its work in this space, Honeywell recently opened a new research and development facility in Phoenix, Arizona. Brent Bundy visited the facility on behalf of to learn more about the technology that Honeywell is developing.

Proving its commitment to the mantra “The future is what we make it,” Honeywell unveiled a new AAM lab at its North Phoenix aerospace location, adjacent to the Phoenix-Deer Valley Airport.

The state-of-the-art research and development facility is divided into segments for urban air mobility (UAM) and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The two departments will work on individual projects, as well as collaborate and take advantage of Honeywell’s decades of expertise in aviation technology.

Brent Bundy tests Honeywell’s urban air mobility concept simulator, equipped with fly-by-wire controls to replicate the experience of operating an aerial vehicle in an actual airspace environment. Brent Bundy Image

Urban air mobility

The lion’s share of the AAM lab is dedicated to multiple technologies on the UAM front. Stepping into the facility, you are greeted by a futuristic-looking pod, which is a mock-up of a cockpit for a potential UAM vehicle.

While it is not intended to replicate an actual flight deck, the systems it demonstrates are a vision that Honeywell has for simplified vehicle operations (SVO). The SVO concept would be the culmination of various projects rolled into a final product, one that would involve little to no input from an onboard pilot. The programs it combines include several that are currently being advanced in the new AAM lab.

“Aerospace is half of what Honeywell is involved in as part of our worldwide presence,” said Jia Xu, chief technology officer and senior director of engineering for UAM/UAS at Honeywell. “Using that expertise, our goal is to provide everything for the UAM/UAS market except the plane.”

He envisions a “highly integrated aircraft” in which Honeywell will offer solutions for sensors, navigation, propulsion, avionics, displays, and other flight-critical components.

Principal certification engineer Pulkit Agarwal explains the simplified vehicle operations (SVO) mock-up and how the system is designed to reduce the level of pilot input while flying a future urban air mobility platform. Brent Bundy Image

“We have recognized the vast potential of this market,” said Xu, discussing two areas that Honeywell has set its targets on. “First, the ability to take a 100-mile [160-kilometer] trip in 45 minutes by air taxi. Second, same-day package delivery. Currently, 80% of the U.S. has same-day delivery. Our goal is to help cover the remaining 20% with the technologies that we are creating for our partners.”

In the quest to achieve these goals, one accepted requirement is the adaptation of fly-by-wire controls. Dean Wilkens, Honeywell’s flight control chief engineer, said that while Honeywell products are already used in aircraft, such as the Boeing 787 and General Dynamics F-16, current systems must be reimagined for new applications.

“Over the years, we have layered new technology on older systems,” Wilkens said. “For the upcoming UAM market, we are redeveloping and shrinking these systems. The goals are simplification for pilots, added layers of safety, and maximization of reuse in a variety of platforms that are dictated by the manufacturers.”

In addition to the SVO mock-up, the AAM lab houses two separate cockpit simulators. One allows for the occupant to manually fly a UAM, utilizing flight control systems and hardware developed by Honeywell.

The other set-up advances on this concept and demonstrates how a manned UAM can be flown, requiring very little input from the pilot, including diverting to an alternate landing site for an in-flight emergency, such as a medical incident for a passenger. While both are in development phases, the demos show what is on the horizon for the UAM market.

Honeywell has partnered with Denso Corporation to develop the Elexcore electric propulsion unit (EPU). This compact EPU has a modular design and is capable of providing 160 kilowatts of continuous output. Brent Bundy Image

Honeywell is also deeply invested in a partnership with Denso Corporation, the global automotive components manufacturer. The collaboration is for the further development and application of the Denso Elexcore electric propulsion unit.

The 160-kilowatt of power provided by this unit is achieved by combining two 80 kW motors via a gearbox, making the system modular in design.

“We are on a pathway toward a user-replaceable set-up that gives our OEM [original equipment manufacturer] partners latitude of choice for its application,” Xu said.

With the variety of approaches to UAM design configurations, numerous Elexcore motors can be stacked along shared driveshafts to power multiple rotors independently. The motor is still in development under Honeywell’s engine and powerplant division.

One of the items currently occupying Honeywell’s workbench is the IntuVue RDR-84K band radar system. This device was designed with the goal of providing previously unavailable levels of detection and avoidance using Honeywell-developed hardware and software.

Unmanned aircraft systems

The UAS side of the house is focused on developing and perfecting solutions for small, unmanned aerial platforms, as well as adapting these technologies to future UAM projects, and testing applicability to manned aircraft.

The item currently occupying Honeywell’s workbench is the IntuVue RDR-84K band radar system. Weighing 1.5 pounds (0.7 kilograms) and measuring 8.9″ wide x 4.9″ tall x 1.7″ thick, this diminutive device was designed with the lofty goal of providing previously unavailable levels of detection and avoidance using Honeywell-developed hardware and software.

In contrast to mechanical radar systems, the RDR-84K utilizes a phased-array design with electronically-steered beams. The advantage to this set-up is reduced size, weight, and power consumption, requiring only 60 watts. A single unit has a detection field of view of 110 degrees azimuth and 30 degrees of elevation. With the ability to network multiple units together, an aircraft would be provided with a full 360-degree of security.

“The goal of this system is to fly completely autonomously while providing unparalleled protection for the equipped aircraft,” explained Larry Surace, lead UAS/AAM systems architect at Honeywell.

A recent test placed an RDR-84K-equipped drone on a collision course with another drone, sized to emulate a Robinson R44 helicopter.

Larry Surace, lead UAS/AAM systems architect at Honeywell, discussed the recent successful airborne tests of the IntuVue RDR-84K radar system, shown here mounted on the unmanned aircraft system used in the trial. Brent Bundy Image

“During the test, the radar-equipped UAS was able to detect the intruder, avoid it, then return to its preset course. This was all done with no human intervention,” Surace stated.

In a video of the aerial test, multiple scenarios were thrown at the system, including head-on and 45-degree and 90-degree offsets, with all tests completed successfully.

“Honeywell is one of the first companies to mount radar on a UAV,” said Andrew Baker, lead UAV systems engineer and chief sUAS pilot. “Other systems have relied on cameras. Our system uses no cameras.”

For further detection capabilities, it is also equipped with ADS-B, with those target acquisitions being integrated into the avoidance algorithms.

The RDR-84K is not limited to aerial platforms. “A customer recently requested a pole-mounted unit, which we were able to provide,” Surace remarked.

Honeywell’s vast network of manufacturing also assists in product development by providing access to rapid 3D printing. “We can place a request for parts and have them in-hand, often the following day,” Baker asserted.

Progress continues to evolve with the next version anticipated to be even thinner and lighter.

This modified DJI drone was used as the “intruder” during recent airborne tests with the RDR-84K radar system and its detect and avoid capabilities. The triangular cone mounted on the front was designed to simulate an aircraft the size of a Robinson R44 helicopter. Brent Bundy Image


“Over the past few years, we have invested heavily in growing our AAM team to include the greatest minds in the business,” Xu said.

The advancements demonstrated at the AAM lab prove that Honeywell has its finger on the pulse of the UAS/UAM market. Major players in the market are paying attention. Top on the list of partners are Vertical Aerospace and Lilium, both leaders in the race to putting eVTOL aircraft into the air.

With the dedication that Honeywell has shown to this burgeoning market, there are sure to be many more knocking at its door.

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