Automated Mobility - In The Skies

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With all of the recent attention on the future of autonomous cars, it’s interesting how we mainly focus on the initial offerings coming to market, and less on how the technology is likely to develop and ultimately create a major paradigm shift. Consider the first personal computers, for example: they were very exciting new products for the time, but almost laughable now in terms of their limited functionality. Many of us remember the first Apple Macintosh, released in 1984 with the price of $2,495 and offering only 128 K of memory! Today you can buy an Apple laptop with far more functionality and with 512 GB of memory for about the same price! And our smartphones are beyond amazing and a product-service none of us could have even dreamed of back in 1984.

So it’s interesting that as the world watches the cute little Google robotic cars drive their first miles, few are even aware that NASA is working on a radical new concept for autonomous personal aircraft to address consumers’ longer commute needs in our future metropolitan regions. NASA has a vision for a multitude of small 1- to 2-passenger, fully automated electric-powered aircraft crossing our metropolitan regions’ skies in the future. Their design focuses on distributed electric propulsion, extreme energy efficiency, and utilizing runway-eliminating vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology. As a fully automated system, the user does not have to know how to fly a plane at all!

The distributed propulsion approach is for fixed-wing aircraft. Their goal is to increase performance in fuel efficiency, emissions, noise, field length, and handling performance as compared to the use of a single large engine, jet, or propeller. Distributed propulsion is typically accomplished by span-wise distribution of partially or fully embedded multiple small engines or fans across the width of wing. 

The man behind this vision is Mark Moore, a NASA Langley Research Center aerospace engineer. He is interested in how this new technology can help reduce traffic congestion in our major cities, along with expediting travel for long-distance commuters. In addition to developing the autonomous aerial vehicle technology, he has been very focused on realizing major advances in the electric propulsion systems and state of the art aerodynamics. When talking to Mark, it’s similar to talking to a Tesla engineer, as he is very excited about new e-power systems offering 92 to 97% efficiency—vastly better than any internal combustion engine-based powertrain. Mark anticipates each automated electric plane will be able to achieve a 100 MPGe rating.

While there are no (land-inefficient) runways required for the system, take-off and landing will happen on “helipads.” The proposed system will also be integrated with land-based shared mobility services, such as Uber or Lyft to get users to and from one’s automated plane. NASA anticipates the need to work with both private and public entities in creating a meaningful helipad network across a region. 

The intermodal/multimodal aspect of this proposed system may be a downside, as it takes time for the user to transfer from one vehicle to another. However, the designer in me can imagine the land vehicles and air vehicles being designed at the same time, featuring a modular occupant “pod” approach that will allow for quick transfer from one mode to the next. This would happen while the user remains comfortably seated.

A key to this future will be a new paradigm of flight control. The control towers of today are highly outdated. The next paradigm is already taking shape; it’s called “ADSB,” a cooperative surveillance technology in which an aircraft determines its position via satellite navigation and periodically broadcasts it, enabling it to be tracked. The information can be received by air traffic control ground stations, but also be received by other aircraft to provide situational awareness and allow self-separation. ADSB will likely manage drone movement, as well.

NASA has an exciting concept, and there is certainly far more space for people and goods to travel in the future in the air than on land. While the program seems daunting, the one major concern for Mark and his team at NASA is the high level of noise of these planes. They will need to minimize noise of the system if they aim to have thousands of these micro robo-planes taking off and landing close to where people live and work in our future metropolitan regions.

As far as NASA is concerned, our automated mobility future is not only about self-driving cars and trucks, but self-flying personal aircraft, as well. Clearly, the automated mobility future is going to be very exciting. 


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Dan Sturges is mobility design consultant for team red and has been supporting “transformative” transportation projects for nearly 30 years.  He trained as a car designer, worked as an entrepreneur to bring to market a new intermediate vehicle category. He supports a wide range of vehicle design and mobility planning efforts for both government and corporate entities.