Gerrard Cowan
By Gerrard Cowan

Gerrard Cowan is a freelance journalist who specializes in finance and defense. Follow him on Twitter @gerrardcowan

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Thales looks toward future of flight

Thales in the UK is expanding its work in the eVTOL domain, pursuing a range of projects related to air traffic control, cybersecurity, communications, and more, the company has told evtol.com.

Thales eVTOL concept
Thales in the UK is working in a range of areas related to eVTOL. Thales Image

Much of this work is being conducted with the aim of contributing to the Future Flight Challenge, a United Kingdom government-backed program to develop the next generation of transport, said Julia Jiggins, the company’s head of civil avionics strategy. 

There are three major focuses for Thales in the UK, Jiggins said. First, the company is growing its work in integrated urban traffic management, “looking at how we integrate urban air mobility [UAM] into the air traffic models of today.” There are a variety of tools, processes, and systems that will need to be developed for this, Jiggins said. Thales has created a number of pilot models and concepts in areas like sense-and-avoid technology, and has built maps of areas where there could be obstacles that air taxis would have to avoid. The company is also developing “virtual ‘no-go’ areas,” she said. While physical obstacles can be used to prevent road vehicles from entering certain areas, “there’s nothing really physical that can stop a drone or an eVTOL,” so this will have to be achieved using other means. 

The second focus area is the development of resilient communications. UAM connectivity will be heavily dependent on sensors, and very data driven, Jiggins said. Thales is working to develop datalinks to help control the vehicles, along with mesh networking technology, which would allow drones or eVTOLs to effectively talk with one another. The company is working with Southampton University on research in this area, she added. 

The third overarching focus is cybersecurity, Jiggins said. Given the sheer number of assets that will likely be flying, a lot of data will be communicated to support them, particularly when they fly beyond line of sight in a pre-programmed route. 

“You need cybersecurity to make sure that vehicle does what was planned for it,” she said. 

Thales is also developing digital training tools that could be used to train air taxi pilots, said David Head, head of customer marketing at the company. Additionally, it is creating synthetic environments that drone and eVTOL developers can use to test their planned systems. 

“The actual platform is kind of the easy bit,” he said. “The difficult bit is how you control them, ensuring they all have enough battery power, for example.”

The use of a synthetic environment — for example, comprising an area of London or New York, or another city — will allow manufacturers to assess how their systems would perform. The data gathered could then be used in the real world, Head said. 

The company’s Soarizon tool — internet-based software that allows operators to conduct a range of mission planning and other activities related to drone operations — will also have potential applications for eVTOL users, said Marion Le Masson, digital product manager for Soarizon. 

The company has started analyzing how the tool could be used in a number of use cases, including UAM. There may need to be specific steps for planning an eVTOL mission, for example. 

“You might have specific requirements, especially as the market and the regulations are shaped around this use case in the future,” she explained. 

DARTeC at Cranfield University
The work conducted at the Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC) aims to shape the future of airports, aircraft, airspace and airlines. Cranfield University Image

Digital aviation is at the core of these various projects, said Jiggins; she also pointed to the Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC) at Cranfield University, of which Thales is a founder member. This aims to spearhead British research in digital aviation technology. There are different aspects to this research, Jiggins said, from communicating data between various vehicles to storing and analyzing that data. 

Thales and Cranfield University have also joined the U.K.’s National BVLOS Experimentation Corridor (NBEC), which will enable new concepts of airspace management to be developed, evaluated, and tested in a physical and virtual environment, according to the company. 

Thales is researching how this data communication, storage and analysis will operate in a future in which the systems are autonomous. There is much that can be learned from work on automated cars, Jiggins said, in areas like artificial intelligence (AI). 

The company is currently building consortia of interested parties in the eVTOL domain, she said, with the aim of eventually providing key technology building blocks to air taxi manufacturers. 

“We’re building proofs of concepts that really challenge what we know and what we don’t know as an industry, so that we’ve got viable air vehicles that have a business case and are making an economic difference to the U.K. economy,” she said. 

Future Flight is really focused on boosting mobility, Jiggins said: “This will require multimodal solutions that will allow us to use space that isn’t used today.”

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