NASA signs new deal with Uber to speed urban air mobility research

NASA has signed a second space act agreement with Uber Technologies to further explore concepts and technologies related to urban air mobility (UAM) to ensure a safe and efficient system for future air transportation in populated areas, according to NASA

Under this agreement, Uber will share its plans for implementing an urban aviation rideshare network. NASA will use the latest in airspace management computer modelling and simulation to assess the impacts of small aircraft – from delivery drones to passenger aircraft with vertical take-off and landing capability – in crowded environments.

This is NASA’s first such agreement specifically focused on modelling and simulation for UAM operations.

“NASA is excited to be partnering with Uber and others in the community to identify the key challenges facing the UAM market, and explore necessary research, development and testing requirements to address those challenges,” said Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “Urban air mobility could revolutionize the way people and cargo move in our cities and fundamentally change our lifestyle much like smart phones have.”

At its research facility at the Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport, NASA will use the data supplied by Uber to simulate a small passenger-carrying aircraft as it flies through DFW airspace during peak scheduled air traffic. Analysis of these simulations will identify safety issues as these new aircraft take to the air in an already crowded air traffic control system.

“The new space act agreement broadening Uber’s partnership with NASA is exciting, because it allows us to combine Uber’s massive-scale engineering expertise with NASA’s decades of subject matter experience across multiple domains that are key to enabling urban air mobility, starting with airspace systems,” said Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer.

As small aircraft enter the marketplace, NASA wants to ensure they do so safely, with acceptable levels of noise, and without burdening the current national air traffic control system. To this end, the agency is leveraging ongoing aeronautics research in areas including: Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) traffic management at low altitude; UAS integration in the National Airspace System; all-electric, general aviation class aircraft development; vertical take-off and landing aircraft; system-wide safety; and more.

These activities will generate the data necessary to support the creation of industry standards, Federal Aviation Administration rules and procedures, and other related regulations. NASA will make the research available to the broader UAM community.

“The convergence of technologies, and new business models enabled by the digital revolution, is making it possible to explore this new way for people and cargo to move within our cities,” said Jaiwon Shin.

NASA’s part in this process, Shin said, reminds him of the quote often attributed to President John F. Kennedy, who was fond of saying “A rising tide lifts all boats.” NASA-developed technology and systems related to UAM will help lift a new aerial marketplace to success. NASA began exploring UAM as early as 2003 when a NASA researcher presented a conference paper entitled “Personal Air Vehicles: A Rural/Regional and Intra-Urban On-Demand Transportation System.”

Building its expertise in this area, NASA continued to study the topic and in 2016 published a study about On-Demand Mobility, the results of which helped inspire and define a path for turning the UAM vision into reality.

“Now, our goals are to help develop and enable as much as possible what we like to think of as an entire ecosystem when it comes to Urban Air Mobility,” said Davis Hackenberg, a NASA engineer who is helping to coordinate the agency’s UAM activities.

NASA and its partners are working with the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with a way to safely manage all of these low-flying aircraft so they do not interfere with or burden the current air traffic control system that manages the national airspace.

In fact, NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management project, which has already conducted several successful demonstrations managing small drones in flight under various conditions, could be very helpful as a foundational tool for UAM researchers to take advantage of in developing their air traffic management system, said the organisation. NASA is looking to ensure the entire UAM system – and every iteration along the way – is operated with a high degree of safety, and that all air vehicles do not generate unacceptable levels of noise.

Another area where NASA’s strengths already are assisting UAM air vehicle development is with its electric propulsion research.

Hybrid-electric or all-electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing air vehicles are likely to dominate UAM operations over cities thanks to their significantly reduced, or even zero emissions, as well as relatively quiet operation.

Earlier this month, NASA made available to the entire UAM community extensive technical data gathered from its still-ongoing X-57 Maxwell project, which is an all-electric propulsion experimental research airplane.

The shared data comes from more than 25 publicly available documents written by the X-57 team, who already are working with regulators on how best to approach certifying their new ideas for flight – all of which can be helpful to the UAM community.

“The key to success in making UAM a reality is the opportunity for NASA to work with a large, diverse set of partners,” Hackenberg said.

Building the UAM ecosystem requires expertise in many areas, including those where NASA traditionally has not had strong expertise. So, essentially, the more partners NASA has in this effort the merrier.

“There are several areas that have not been ‘traditional NASA,’ but in order to understand the entire landscape and develop this entire UAM ecosystem, we need to consider everything and work with those who can help us,” Hackenberg said.

For example, part of the UAM model could include “vertiports” – dedicated platforms where an air vehicle can take off or land as close to its customer’s final destination as possible.

Such platforms would come with certain infrastructure requirements – power, secure access, cleared landscaping – that are likely to involve real estate developers, property managers, utility companies, and local government officials and civil engineers.

“These are entities and people that NASA in the past hasn’t really partnered with on projects of this scale,” Hackenberg said. “They will be able to help us with our challenges, while at the same time we can provide our expertise so they can better understand what the UAM community’s needs are.”

And while NASA intends to remain a leader in the areas where it can best help, Hackenberg said the agency is keenly aware of the importance of listening to the UAM community to be sure everyone is on the same page and moving in the same direction.

“Traveling by personal air vehicle will become commonplace in the future, and NASA wants to help the UAM community to make it happen,” he said.

The source of this text is the NASA website and an article written by Jim Banke
Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, NASA.
For more information about NASA’s Urban Air Mobility initiative, visit: https://go.nasa.gov/2I04Ec1

(Image: NASA)

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