Mark Broadbent
By Mark Broadbent

Mark Broadbent is a freelance journalist specializing in aerospace and technology. He has written for numerous magazines and websites and became the assistant editor of Air International magazine 2014. He has covered a wide variety of topics across the aerospace industry spanning commercial aircraft, airline industry, unmanned, technology and historical subjects. Follow him on Twitter @mjbwriter.

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Uber and NASA team on eVTOL airspace simulation

Uber and researchers from NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley recently tested technologies simulating large-scale eVTOL operations.

Uber eVTOL view
Uber aims to launch eVTOL ridesharing services in 2023. Its recent engineering evaluation with NASA simulated a future in which such flights are commonplace. Uber Image

An engineering evaluation called X2 saw the NASA Air Traffic Management Exploration (ATM-X) Urban Air Mobility (UAM) team collaborate with Uber Elevate to run a complete simulation of eVTOL flights over Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas.

This “end-to-end” test involved a series of 40-minute simulations in which hundreds of eVTOL flights were simulated and different scenarios evaluated. NASA and Uber each submitted operations for a set of flights as part of the test, with Uber remotely connecting from its lab to the airspace management system developed by the NASA UAM team to make the simulation possible.

The system used in the X2 test was an evolution of prototype technologies the agency has tested since 2015 for the wider UAS Traffic Management (UTM) project, which is developing airspace integration requirements to enable safe and efficient low-altitude operations by drones.

William N. Chan, project manager for the Air Traffic Management Exploration project in the Aviation Systems Division at NASA Ames, told eVTOL.com that NASA realized it could use its UTM experience to work with industry and the Federal Aviation Administration in the UAM market.

Chan said: “We take our expertise and modify our technology to address the questions of how we get these vehicles into the airspace with the types of operations these businesses are trying to do.”

Chan explained scheduling was a key part of the X2 test, with one scenario focused on coordinating the scheduling of different eVTOL flights prior to take-off and another focused on coordinating different elements of an emergency landing situation. 

“If you want to bring many systems into the airspace, with the interactions and awareness of other vehicles, you need to have an airspace management system that can work those vehicles to get to the scale that businesses are looking for and manage them for safe, efficient operations, acknowledging that there are other operations in the airspace,” he told eVTOL.com.

“One of the things we looked at in the simulation was how do you work together in constrained airspace, like a crossing point, so you can safely use that space. We deployed algorithms developed for other projects and extended them to work for UAM operations.”

The NASA algorithm was adapted from the one used for the UTM project, and Uber brought its own algorithm to the trial. A key part of X2 was to figure out how to get the algorithms to interoperate to ensure the parties could communicate and work collaboratively.

Chan said key learning points in this respect were identifying requirements for communication, the information tempo, and what information needs to be shared. A NASA statement said the build-up to X2 saw the project teams identifying “several scalability issues” for which mitigating solutions were developed and tested. 

NASA Ames is now analyzing the scientific data from X2, but Chan said initial results indicate the data paradigm developed initially for the UTM research and adapted for X2 were promising. “We found we can extend the UTM architecture to develop a UAM system,” he said.

As eVTOL.com reported recently, NASA has issued the Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenge (GC) for companies to participate in demonstrations to set the foundations for deploying UAM vehicles. NASA will further adapt and X2 for use in the Grand Challenge, saying the Uber collaboration reduces risk on GC flight test activities and “expedites the future integration of GC partners into this system.”

Uber aims to use eVTOLs to provide aerial ridesharing services between skyports conveniently located in major urban areas. Uber Elevate is planning demonstration flights in 2020 in Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Melbourne, Australia, to pave the way towards commercial flights in 2023.

Chan stressed that although Uber was part of the October test, “we’ll start with other partners, too, to develop this system for the community.”

He said: “We’ve learned how to work with the system so we can then engage other partners. Airspace management is an important challenge to enable this market. We expect this to be a system that can be used by the entire community.”

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