Achieving a fit-for-purpose air traffic management system is crucial to the viability of the urban air mobility sector, according to Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer. At the Foresight Aerospace eVTOL conference in London on December 5, David Rottblatt, urban air traffic management (UATM) leader at the company's EmbraerX advanced technology division, acknowledged that Embraer's own plans to bring an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft to market are dependent on this key building block being in place.
Rottblatt addressed the challenges of introducing eVTOL operations into cities and beyond, and in particular bridging the gap between piloted and fully autonomous operations over several years or decades. While its vision on UATM aspects is covered in its FlightPlan 2030 white paper the company published last year, it considers that systems in city environments may have to be separate, "dedicated" ATM environments.
"We need to reduce the workload on controllers [not increase it] so they can concentrate on the airlines," said Rottblatt, who reflected on forecasts that the commercial aircraft fleet itself is set to double over the next 20 years. Panelist Dr. Luis Barbero, president and CEO of air traffic controllers organization GATCO, agreed, saying, "We're short of air traffic controllers; we can't recruit and train them fast enough, yet we have to improve the environmental performance." However, referring to ATC systems in general, he warned that "the human is still the key component and automation has limitations, including the limitations of the humans developing the systems."
Rottblatt said EmbraerX studied the São Paulo ecosystem where hundreds of helicopters and helipads are in regular operation. He said this system, run by Brazil's air navigation service provider (ANSP), which is essentially part of the military, has become very procedural and limited in its scope of operations. This makes Embraer wary that the eVTOL vision will never be scaleable if such limitations exist around the world.
The company's analysis suggests that beyond 100 eVTOL aircraft an automated ATM system will be required—also requiring a switch from piloted to fully automated vehicles. He also suggested this stage could be achieved around five years after first operations, where voice communications with controllers would switch off except in emergencies.
"We are building our eVTOL to emerge into an autonomous aircraft but need a new paradigm of ATM eventually to scale safely, not moving too fast to autonomy," explained Rottblatt. He added that every city and country would have its own timescale for this transition and said EmbraerX would soon be launching simulations with "two large ANSPs" to look at how eVTOL aircraft could operate in the same airspace as other aircraft.
Embraer is one of six manufacturer partners selected by Uber to develop aircraft for its planned Uber Air rideshare program. "We are doing our best to do what Uber wants. Our aircraft will be autonomous ready but designed with the pilot in mind," said Rottblatt. "It's up to the regulator what we have to demonstrate...there has been a lot of discussion about how to interpret current regulations, but at the moment there aren't regulations for this...no law that can let you do it [autonomous flight]. Absolutely everything needs to be data-driven though; we need to deliver the data to regulators."