Future Flight Challenge simulates integration of crewed and uncrewed aircraft

The UK has carried out air traffic control simulations for Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), demonstrating how eVTOL – electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft or ‘flying taxis’ – could one day be safely integrated with conventional air traffic, says the press release.

The simulations were the latest milestone for the Advanced Mobility Ecosystem Consortium, a group of aviation, technology and transport organisations demonstrating the commercial and operational viability of AAM. The consortium is a Future Flight Challenge programme jointly funded by UK Research and Innovation and includes Vertical Aerospace, Virgin Atlantic, AtkinsRéalis, Skyports, NATS, Connected Places Catapult, Cranfield University and WMG – University of Warwick.

The tests precede the consortium’s planned real-world demonstration flight in late 2024.

The air traffic control service, NATS successfully simulated eVTOL flights from Bristol Airport through the airspace around Farnborough Airport, and then onto London City Airport. The flights operated alongside traditional air traffic and in controlled airspace without any impact on conventional operations.

The simulations were made possible with a combination of new prototype technologies and the creation of a new ‘Airspace Manager’ function. Under NATS’ proposed concept of operations, each eVTOL operator would file their flight plans via an application, which would then be approved or amended as required. The whole flight would then be entirely deconflicted from other aircraft before even taking off, with the ‘Airspace Manager’ function monitoring the airspace from a digital ‘master control room’.

Direct voice communication between eVTOL pilots and air traffic control would only be required by exception, and while the Airspace Manager function was fulfilled by a person during the simulations, it could one day be almost entirely automated. NATS believes this proposed concept strikes the best balance between ensuring safety and providing airspace access to new users without adding to the workload of air traffic controllers or pilots.

Anna Postma-Kurlanc, NATS Project Lead, said: “Our skies are already busy, so we are going to have to find new, innovative ways of managing and integrating this new generation of electric aircraft. Safety is always going to be our first priority, and the airspace manager function and new technologies we’re developing as a conduit between the eVTOL operators and traditional air traffic control, is going to be vital.”

(Image: The simulations were carried out in NATS’ training college in Fareham, Hampshire)

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