The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

NASA Steps Up Urban Air Mobility Automation Trials in Vertiport Lab

NASA is stepping up preparations for an advanced air mobility (AAM) future. The U.S. agency’s researchers recently completed simulations involving a vertiport hosting large volumes of eVTOL aircraft operations as part of its high-density vertiplex (HDV) subproject.

The HDV team is responsible for the development and maturation of automation technologies and architectures to support AAM infrastructure and operations, focusing on the creation and testing of concepts, requirements, software architectures, and technologies needed for the terminal environment around vertiports, with an emphasis on urban air mobility (UAM) operations. Researchers developed a prototype UAM ecosystem that includes automated systems for aircraft operations, airspace management, ground control, and fleet management.

“Several aspects of UAM will require a different approach to aircraft operations,” HDV technology lead Lou Glaab explained at the recent Electric Aircraft Symposium, which the Vertical Flight Society organized. “One aspect is the anticipated high-density operations requiring many aircraft to operate in an area simultaneously. We expect air traffic density beyond current traffic levels at airports, which demands a more automated approach to air traffic management.”

Increasing automation will also help make AAM innovations profitable and affordable, according to NASA. “In order to enhance the ability to be profitable, having the option to remove the pilot needs to be possible,” Glaab said. “As a result, many traditional roles of the on-board pilot will need to be automated, such as traffic collision avoidance, health monitoring, and emergency landings.”

As part of its simulations, HDV developed beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flight operations for remotely piloted aircraft in urban areas. Researchers used aircraft operating at NASA’s City Environment Range in Langley, Virginia, to test autonomous integrated navigation, at first through simulation and then in live trials.

While the aircraft were flying at the range, pilots were controlling them remotely from NASA’s Ames Airspace Operations Laboratory. At the same time, the team members acted as a simulated fleet, and vertiport managers worked from a third facility, the Ames Autonomous Vehicles Operations Laboratory. “The vertiport manager could perform tasks such as simulated vertiport closures to trigger vehicle reroutes to alternate vertiports,” Glaab said.

HDV’s third objective was to demonstrate automated capabilities while still flying within a visual line of sight. The testing scenarios included standard A to B flights, flights that got rerouted to alternate vertiports, simulated emergencies, and flight tests with multiple vehicles performing autonomous "detect-and-avoid" functions. These flight tests were also performed using extended visual-line-of-sight operations with ground control station operators in Langley’s Remote Operations for Autonomous Missions interacting with the fleet managers and vertiport managers at Ames’s labs.

The HDV team plans to continue to focus on the development and testing of concepts and technologies for vertiports with an emphasis on how automation can increase flight safety and efficiency.

NASA is also promoting the adoption of new forms of aviation through its Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign.