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NASA’s Sky for All reimagines the future airspace

If you think the nation’s airspace couldn’t get any busier, think again. Given what’s literally on the horizon, NASA’s Sky for All program has begun developing an architecture and system of systems to ensure the envisioned increase in traffic happens safely and sustainably.

Commercial and conventional general aviation will continue to grow. And, a host of new lightweight, vertical-takeoff aircraft — many autonomous or piloted remotely — will transport people and goods soon too. Unlike the drones popular with hobbyists, filmmakers and infrastructure inspectors, the next generation of aerial vehicles will operate in the controlled airspace with more conventional aircraft.

“Sky for All is a vision for the mid-century, for the future airspace and all the possibility that it can hold for us,” said Jeanne Yu, chief strategist for Sky for All. “The vision is: How can we maintain and enhance safety through technology, even though the skies are becoming more complex?”

Technology to the forefront

Skies suitable for all aircraft will be enabled by information technology, an airspace governed by a combination of peer-to-peer communications, a rich data fabric and artificial intelligence, Yu explained. It will eventually replace the current air traffic control system, which has its roots in the 1950s. Sky for All presupposes the Federal Aviation Administration completing its info-centric National Airspace System, Yu said.

NASA envisions various classes of aircraft continuing to operate within what it and FAA call volumes. A pizza delivery drone, for example, won’t traverse the end of a hub airport runway in front of a Dreamliner heading overseas. Nor will a Learjet navigate among the canyons of Manhattan.

The program envisions an integrated data environment, “which takes that data and puts all the artificial intelligence and machine learning that you can on it,” Yu said. “That allows you to integrate between volumes so that there can be more mix and integration of diverse vehicles within larger volumes.” She suggested that integration will occur around 2040.

Yu likened the future traffic control system to the internet, something with open standards that grows organically yet with interoperability. Such technology tends to get adapted quickly, she said and cited a popular tablet introduced in 2010. “A year later, it was in flight decks.”

A digital environment will optimize use of air space, or volumes, in terms of capacity, environmental sustainability and safety, Yu said.

“Our research wants to be focused on how the airspace can be more integrated, but only segregated when necessary,” she said “How can we be more flexible and only structured when necessary and in a way that allows the ability for us to optimize flight?”

Trusted autonomy

Much of this research — by NASA, FAA and grant teams — focuses on unpiloted vehicles and creating what Yu called trusted autonomy. To achieve trusted autonomy, NASA and FAA must address two equal challenges:

  • First, they must establish algorithms that keep autonomous vehicles from colliding with other aircraft or anything else in their environment.
  • Second, they must develop a security framework for the data aboard vehicles and the network connecting them.

“How can the data be secure? How can we verify and validate that operators are who they say they are and how they are operating in the sky?” Yu said. “All that becomes a tricky part of the artificial intelligence, machine learning and the human-machine partnering. How do we decide when human-machine partnering starts to shift more to the machine?”

Answers to such questions will enable realization of a crucial, but still potential, branch of aviation. Namely, personal door-to-door mobility by air, what Yu quipped is the “George Jetson dream.” The physical platforms to do this exist now.

“People are worried that there are going to be a ton of vehicles in the sky — and that it’s going to be noisy and unmanageable,” she said.

To understand what’s likely and the challenges, NASA will investigate air taxi use through demonstration projects. Yu added that both quality of life and sustainability are key principles of the Sky for All program.

NASA will look at air taxi performance, reliability, environmental effects, safety and logistics, she said. The space agency and its partners are applying the same tests to smaller-craft delivery systems for everything from the proverbial pizza to emergency medical supplies.

All that work in turn will spur research into the software systems required to support the coming transport modes. What’s more, AI and machine learning will speed understanding of how this multitude of systems communicate with one another, Yu said

“Systems of systems is a huge area I don’t think you can do Sky for All without. You will have to better understand network management and network design.”

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