By Gerrard Cowan

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


Honeywell’s Jia Xu on designing systems for eVTOL aircraft

Last year, Honeywell formed a dedicated business unit for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and urban air mobility (UAM). The company had already been active in these sectors for some time, with a focus on everything from propulsion to avionics to mechanical systems.

Last September, the manufacturer opened a research and development lab in its Deer Valley avionics facility in Phoenix, Arizona, dedicated to maturing technology for flight controls, simplified vehicle operations (SVO) and avionics in future UAM aircraft. The lab is configured to resemble the flight deck of a conceptual eVTOL platform, with a seat positioned in front of a primary flight display and additional wraparound screens providing a simulated external view. The displays and control stick are integrated with compact fly-by-wire computers.

We spoke with Jia Xu, Honeywell’s senior director of strategy for UAM and UAS, to discuss the lab and the company’s broader efforts in the eVTOL space.

Jia Xu Honeywell
Jia Xu, Honeywell senior director of strategy for UAM and UAS. Honeywell Photo Could you describe the background to the new lab? What was behind the development?

Jia Xu: We started building the lab for three major reasons. First, to help us integrate and advance our own technologies, our value proposition that we can help build systems that are pre-integrated and optimized for the UAM space. That includes things like our compact fly-by-wire system, as well as systems like the advanced sidestick inceptors, built with technologies originally developed for the Orion spacecraft. This makes them ultra-compact and lightweight for UAM. The lab is also helping us build a pathway to autonomy, through things like our detect-and-avoid system, centered around the RDR-84K detect-and-avoid radar.

Second, it’s the perfect place to design the advanced, simplified operations interface for flying these platforms. What we’re trying to do in SVO is fully replace the kind of traditional aircraft glass panel with a new simplified interface that takes care of a lot of the aviation functions automatically — functions that would traditionally require hundreds of hours of pilot training to operate.

And finally, the lab is a platform that we find useful for doing customer discovery. Because we’re in a new market, we’re working with new technologies and often operating under regulations that still are very much evolving. We think the key to success is to iterate rapidly, and the lab helps us show our customers and the regulators what we are trying to do, rather than telling them. A wide range of eVTOLs are being developed. How do you ensure the lab can adapt to different systems?

Jia Xu: We have to cater to a lot of different needs, and this space is very diverse. To a certain extent, we’re seeing some commonalities in the vehicles that are emerging. But ultimately people are still trying all sorts of different ideas, so we want to be able to support that and we’ve built the lab to be very much modular and customizable.

The lab is built to industry standards in terms of defining the display and communications. We can readily ingest the relevant control laws and aircraft dynamic models. We can also mock up new interface elements very quickly.

A second layer is concerned with the actual avionics and fly-by-wire system we use. These are built fundamentally as modular, extensible systems, allowing them to support a wide array of different kinds of aircraft, different configurations, different control architectures and different sensor inputs. With UAM vehicles, often there are additional control law inputs, such as the state of the electric propulsion systems. Our architecture is designed to be able to readily accommodate those additional channels.

Honeywell eVTOL concept
A Honeywell concept for a cockpit enabling simplified vehicle operations. Honeywell Image What approach is Honeywell taking to the UAM market more broadly?

Jia Xu: We believe in an integrated approach. We think that companies don’t have to boil the ocean, so to speak. They don’t have to reinvent everything. There’s a lot of goodness in the capabilities that we have already tailored for this space. What that boils down to is an integrated avionics suite, but also integrated propulsion, thermal management, and mechanical systems.

For example, our compact fly-by-wire system shrinks that high-assurance system down to the size of a hardback book, so it’s really designed for UAM. And that’s tied to our next-gen avionics platform, which not only is optimized in terms of form factor and the kind of sensor inputs for UAM operations, but it also is designed to accommodate SVO.

We’re also working on our detect-and-avoid radar, a very compact radar that we believe has the best combination of performance, integrity, assurance, and availability for this market. It operates day and night in all weather and can detect aircraft-size targets from kilometers away. That’s a key element of our strategy towards enabling the gradual evolution of autonomy on these types of vehicles, because detect-and-avoid is one of the key functions to help fly themselves. What work are you doing on other sides of the eVTOL space, like propulsion?

Jia Xu: We have a partnership with Denso to scale up electric motor design and production for aerospace purposes. It combines what we bring to the table, which is the aerospace expertise, the design expertise and the certification expertise, with Denso’s work in developing proven and reliable motors that can be built at a massive scale.

That’s a key area for us. We’re also focused on electrification, which of course underpins the whole eVTOL industry. Here, we’re combining electrification on the front end with hybrid electric propulsion on the back end, through our 1-Megawatt turbogenerator. That can enable long-range flight beyond 200 miles, and also fully leverage distributed electric propulsion to enable VTOL and optimize the integrated design of conventional and short take-off vehicles.

We’re focused on eVTOL in a range of other areas. We have the world’s smallest SATCOM system [the Small UAV SATCOM System], and we’ve seen interest from manufacturers there. We have a thermal management system [the Micro Vapor Cycle System] that’s designed to cool batteries, motors, and cabins on these vehicles — a key requirement in real-life eVTOL operations. Again we’re seeing increased interest there as OEMs move from demonstrations to certification and operations.

And finally, we’re building electro-mechanical actuators. When we think about autonomy, we tend to focus on smarts like the algorithms. But those are nothing without the actuators that touch and feel the world. On a UAM or autonomous aircraft, this has to be that much safer, because they’re being asked to do a lot more.

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