As electric vehicle technology takes off—literally—how will the logistics of air traffic work? Watch how NASA researchers are writing the rules that will make air travel via electric vehicles safe.
You Could Take a Flying Car to Work Someday
Published: May 28, 2021
MILES O’BRIEN: A billion people flying air taxis? How could that be safe?
At NASA’s Ames Research Center, in Silicon Valley, they’re tackling the air traffic control challenge. That’s what led me here, to the legendary Vertical Motion Simulator.
Once upon a time, space shuttle astronauts honed their landing skills here. There’s nothing like it anywhere else.
Controller: Back on glide slope...
MILES O’BRIEN: And now, NASA is using it to understand how to devise a safe air traffic control system for Advanced Air Mobility.
Hey Gordon. How are you?
GORDON HARDY: Hey, great, Miles.
MILES O’BRIEN: Let’s go e-VTOL flying, shall we?
GORDON HARDY: Good to see you. Yeah. Hop in.
MILES O’BRIEN: Before the pandemic, veteran NASA test pilot Gordon Hardy gave me a glimpse of the future.
NICK: All right, computer’s ready.
GORDON HARDY: Cockpit’s ready.
MILES O’BRIEN: So, we’re over San Francisco on a nice sunny day. So, I’m trying to imagine this city with hundreds of these aircraft buzzing around it.
GORDON HARDY: Yeah.
MILES O’BRIEN: What’s that going to be like?
GORDON HARDY: Yeah, yeah. And hopefully not hitting each other nor falling out of the sky.
MILES O’BRIEN: Exactly.
But the world that Gordon is helping NASA create is designed to work without pilots like him. Eventually, autonomous air taxis will need to safely fly to and from convenient places, taking off, navigating, landing and dealing with emergencies all on their own.
It’s a complex problem.
BRIAN: So, we should see it bank soon.
MILES O’BRIEN: In another building, not far away, engineers are immersed in a 360-degree virtual depiction of the city, watching us fly.
BRIAN: We’re tracking U.A.M. 003, currently. That’s the vertical motion simulator.
SANDY LOZITO: All right. Looks good. And the speed is okay?
MILES O’BRIEN: Sandy Lozito is chief of the aviation systems division.
SANDY LOZITO: We have to think about all of those vehicles being in the airspace at the same time: different performance parameters, potentially different training for the ones that are piloted, and then how do we make sure that everything stays safe?
MILES O’BRIEN: In this world, the idea of a control tower is outdated.
SANDY LOZITO: Looks like we’ve got the V.M.S. going up and over the bridge.
BRIAN: Yeah, that’s working perfectly.
MILES O’BRIEN: Before COVID, there were more than 45,000 flights, every day, in the U.S. It’s an intricate symphony, precisely conducted by air traffic controllers. But if e-VTOLs take off, there will be a lot more players.
SANDY LOZITO: We do not necessarily expect a centralized air traffic control tower to do it, with individual directives telling the pilots how to come in and out of the vertiport. And so, that’s a very different operation. There could be much more independence on the part of the pilots and the individual operators, as they move in and out of these areas.
MILES O’BRIEN: Independence? It sounds like a prescription for disaster.
But NASA has been working on this for the past few years, on smaller drones that don’t carry people. The lessons learned writing those rules are offering them a foundation.
SHIVANJLI SHARMA: So, these would be its operations, right? Coming in around here and landing here, on top of this.
MILES O’BRIEN: Shivanjli Sharma is an aerospace research engineer at Ames. She and her team are using data from the simulations to write the algorithms that will allow air traffic control to be digital, more automated and distributed.
SHIVANJLI SHARMA: The goal would be to share information with other operators and folks like F.A.A., to make sure that everybody in the airspace knows where one another really is flying.
MILES O’BRIEN: In flight, an air taxi would continuously transmit its location to receivers on the ground.
SHIVANJLI SHARMA: As that vehicle is flying, we’re monitoring its position in relation to that four-dimensional volume. Are they inside that volume, are they outside of that volume? Are they in that volume at the time they predicted they would be?
MILES O’BRIEN: There are many hurdles. At low altitudes, in cities, G.P.S. and cellular signals can be unreliable. And what about security? Transmitting all this mission-critical, life and death information across shared cloud networks offers its own set of risks. And there’s one other big challenge: this new air traffic control scheme needs to work safely alongside the old one.
SANDY LOZITO: If there are tubes in the sky or particular lanes of airspace in which these vehicles may transport, we know that, at some point, they’re going to be near conventional aircraft, commercial aircraft, and we have to make sure that those can work together or can complement one another.
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