Airbus is developing new capabilities that will allow for a fully autonomous flight in its Flightlab demonstrator by 2023, the manufacturer has revealed.
Known as the “Vertex” project, the program will see Flightlab — a modified H130 helicopter — controlled through a touchscreen tablet. A pilot will use the tablet to set a destination and choose a route suggested by the system. From there, the aircraft will manage navigation and route preparation, take off, follow the predefined flight path, and land. It will also have an obstacle detection capability to be able to perform a sense-and-avoid function at low speed and low height.
Airbus said the capabilities being developed by Vertex would be of benefit to its existing rotary-wing product line, as well as having a clear role in enabling urban air mobility systems to become a reality.
“Vertex wants to provide pilots [with] a new piloting experience,” Séverin Dauvergne, head of the Vertex demonstrator program, told reporters during a media briefing. “This will allow you to simplify the way a helicopter or VTOL is flown today. . . . [It] gives you the opportunity to almost forget the task of piloting . . . and you just focus as a pilot on your mission, and on your flight.”
The components of Vertex include a suite of cutting-edge sensors, cameras, and lidar (light detection and ranging) technology, which together will create a vast bank of data to give the aircraft a clear picture of its environment at any given moment.
The lidar is critical because it enables the system to instantly detect the exact distance to various objects. The one used in Vertex will be a next-generation lidar, and is currently being developed by leading automotive lidar supplier Luminar Technologies.
“It gives us the correct range acquisition that we want, the correct field of view that we want, and the correct definition that we are expecting,” said Dauvergne. “So, clearly, we are going into a next step of sensors compared to the previous [generation of] lidar.”
Two powerful computers — one for the vision system, one for the avionics — are the brains of Vertex, each providing 500 to 800 times more computing power than is used within any in-production helicopter. These will process the data provided from the various sensors and apply algorithms to control the fully fly-by-wire aircraft.
“[The computers] will allow us not only to make the acquisition of the data, but also to run all of our algorithms, the obstacle detection, the 3D map reconstructions for the landing, the 2D tracker for the helipad recognition, and much more,” said Dauvergne.
With such a system, the pilot will still be able to change course at any time — they will simply need to tap a new point of interest on the tablet.
Finally, so that the pilot isn’t spending the flight staring at a tablet on their knee, Vertex will include a heads up display in the form of small glasses.
During a media briefing with reporters, Grazia Vittadini, the company’s chief technology officer, said pilots would remain the decision makers, with automated and autonomous technologies simply serving to support the pilot’s decision making and increase safety.
“For over 50 years, Airbus has taken great care to design a safe environment for pilots for passengers and crew,” she said. “This is why we’re so excited about Vertex’s potential to simplify mission preparation, mission management, to reduce the helicopter pilot’s workload, and above all else, to further increase safety for our current helicopter range, and for all future vehicles.”
Clearly, the latter is expected to include urban air mobility vehicles, and Vittadini highlighted how a system such a Vertex will likely be needed as these new aircraft first appear in our skies. “We believe [they] will not be deployed on large scale autonomously from the beginning,” she said. “We believe that this set of technologies [in Vertex] will be a fundamental stepping stone to fully autonomous flight . . . in the urban air mobility segment. So it’s not just what will it bring to the existing product [range], but also it has a very strong, let’s say, forward-looking perspective.”
Flightlab testing continues
Airbus has now recorded close to 30 flight hours with Flightlab, with testing to date developing a rotor strike alerting system (due to hit the market as a kit later this year), exploring how to lower the impact of helicopter noise, and maturing an advanced health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) based on digital accelerometers.
A third of the total flight hours have been spent gathering data with the EAGLE (eye for autonomous guidance and landing extension) image detection system. This system utilizes a gyro-stabilized camera to analyze the aircraft’s environment, and these images are processed using artificial intelligence to find areas of importance (either to fly towards or away from).
“Maybe the number of hours seems low, but… the system was mature from the beginning,” said Dauvergne. “The pilots were very impressed by the quality of the system from the beginning, and so we simply had to stop because we had enough data.”
Demonstrations to date have not connected EAGLE to the aircraft’s flight controls. Dauvergne said the next step towards the autonomy of Vertex would be taken next year, with the installation of a third pilot seat in the Flightlab demonstrator, equipped with a joystick control. This will be used to provide electrical inputs to the flight controls.
“The joystick allows piloting by objectives,” he explained. “You just put the stick in one direction, and the computer solves the function of the mission you want to realize.”
However, the full Vertex demonstration flights will be controlled only by the tablet. With a robust use of simulation to test systems and train pilots, Dauvergne said he hopes to be able to achieve Airbus’s goals with the Vertex program in as little as 20 flight hours in early 2023.
Dauvergne said Airbus is in ongoing discussions with EASA to determine the reliability requirements for systems that exist to enhance safety. “Potentially we could have a relaxation [in failure probability] on systems which are by nature improving the safety,” he said.
The Vertex program is being managed by Airbus UpNext, a subsidiary created to fast-track future technologies.