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Dubai Airshow: Pilot schemes to do away with the pilot…

Posted 12 November 2017 · Add Comment

'Autonomous' looks certain to be one of the buzzwords at this year's Dubai Air Show, as scientific and technical advances come together to convert the science fiction staple of unmanned, passenger-carrying aircraft into science fact. Alan Dron has been looking into the subject.

Dubai's forward-looking attitude to transport has already hit the headlines this year with its plans for Volocopter unmanned air taxis just a year or so away.

Airbus is also in talks with the emirate's authorities on how autonomous air vehicles could be incorporated into the city's future. The company will also be talking about how innovation will be moving the aviation sector forward even faster over the next few years.

The European manufacturer is looking into the future with several new flight concepts, which are close to becoming reality as several technologies converge and become progressively less expensive. For example, batteries and photovoltaics that could power the new breed of autonomous aircraft are dropping steadily in price. And, while the 'power density' of batteries – extracting enough energy from them to allow viable flight times and speeds – has previously proved problematic, this is now on the verge of being solved, with many designs of battery-powered aircraft appearing in Europe and the US. Batteries still take time to recharge and this could cause delays between one user leaving the aircraft and another taking off in it. One way around this is to have battery packs that are quickly interchangeable pre-positioned at autonomous vehicle landing sites, with these being swapped after the aircraft lands.

However, Mathias Thomsen, Airbus general manager for urban air mobility within the organisation's corporate technology office, cautions that, as yet, battery packs are relatively large and heavy and owners, users and regulators are likely to be wary of the prospect of the frequent removal and replacement of such a substantial item.

The European manufacturer is cooperating in the design of a couple of potential autonomous aircraft, but Thomsen says that one of the most obvious problems is finding places for the new fleets of autonomous aircraft to take off and land.

Their vertical-take-off and landing capabilities mean they will be able to make use of a wide range of sites but a large city might need several hundred of them to ensure passengers can take-off and land close to where they need to be. “That could automatically change the way our cities look,” noted Thomsen.

“We know there are several new cities planned for the Middle East and greenfield cities are always of interest because of the ability to design something from scratch.” Dubai, with its clearly stated ambitions to be at the front of the autonomous flying trend, will be among the authorities to which Airbus will be talking.

“We're looking at working more closely with a handful of cities in the near future. Dubai has already started running that race and we will clearly be talking with its officials.”

Another type under development is the four-person CityAirbus. This will initially be operated by a pilot for certification and market entry purposes, but will, in time, be able to operate autonomously, once the appropriate regulations are in place. Tests of an 'iron bird' ground rig should be completed by the end of 2017, with first flight targeted for 2018.

To compensate for the time required for passengers to get in and out of an autonomous air vehicle, Airbus calculates that it will have to travel at a minimum of around 120km/h (70mph). “We think there will be a premium for higher speeds,” said Thomsen. Although fears have been expressed at the safety risk of not having a pilot on board, Airbus thinks the opposite will be true; aviation accidents, particularly those involving light aircraft, are predominantly caused by human error. Autonomous flight is likely to be a safer solution. “The question is how autonomous vehicles interact with non-autonomous vehicles,” said Thomsen.

However, airspace has the advantage of already being a very controlled environment and introducing a new technology, such as autonomous flight, is a 'clean sheet of paper' concept, into which safety can be built from the outset, rather than trying to add it to a pre-existing system. Autonomous vehicles could have a control stick so that a pilot could take control in an emergency. Alternatively, if no trained pilots were present, autonomous vehicles are likely to have a 'land me now' button that would bring the aircraft down as quickly as possible while still being safe. The role of airports in the use of autonomous aircraft is key, said Thomsen. They have very long planning horizons. “We've already started engaging with some, but there's a lot more work to do.”

Traditionally, he added, large airports did not like helicopters because they did not follow the pattern of movement of fixed-wing aircraft and their presence cut the productivity of the runway. But Airbus believes that a fully autonomous system that did not overload air traffic controllers and used clearly designated corridors could fit into an airport's operational rhythm. Another innovation that Airbus will be talking about at the show is its Skywise open data platform, which aims to improve operational performance and support the carrier's digital transformation process. Devised in collaboration with US software and services company, Palantir Technologies, a specialist in 'big data' integration and advanced analytics, Skywise is already improving industrial operations performance throughout Airbus' factories. It facilitates enhanced aircraft and equipment designs, better service and support offerings based on deeper in-service data insights. Skywise is a cloud platform and has been designed from the outset with a high level of protection from cyber threats, said Airbus.

There are several layers of encryption, together with strong firewalls, to prevent users looking at data to which they should not have access. Skywise will provide all users with a single access point to their data, which will be enhanced over what is available today by bringing together data from multiple sources across the industry into a cloud-based platform. These sources include work orders, spares consumption, components data, aircraft/fleet configuration, on-board sensor data, and flight schedules. Additional data sources that are traditionally shared with Airbus and hosted only on isolated servers will also be integrated into the platform to help operators conduct their own analyses and make decisions.

These include items such as parts replacements, pilot reports, aircraft condition monitoring reports and service bulletins. Airbus believes Skywise will be able to help airlines support and improve their business models by improving fleet operational reliability through predictive and preventative maintenance, as well as providing rapid root-cause analyses of in-service issues and tracking maintenance effectiveness over time. Skywise will be free to airlines if they agree to share their data with Airbus, and airlines can set limits on what is available: “It's important to say that in Skywise people only share the data they want to share,” explained Jaime Baringo, who heads Airbus' digital business development. “Yes, there's a leap of faith for people sharing data. That's why we are starting with customers who already work with us – they are our best ambassadors.”

Airlines could benefit from benchmarking against others, although information provided to Skywise will be anonymised, so that one airline cannot get a direct insight into the performance of a competitor and thus gain a competitive advantage.

“However, the more you share, the more [benefit] you will get,” he added. And those benefits are potentially much greater today than they would have been just a few years ago. Although in-flight fault reporting through systems such as ACARS has been around for some years, systems like Skywise will hugely increase the amount of data that is downloaded. “From next year, every Airbus A320 and A330 will have the Fomax modem fitted in its avionics bay. That gives you 60 times more data from the aircraft, data that at the moment you can't see. At present, there are 400 parameters; there will be 24,000 from next year,” explained Baringo.

Indeed, every new A350 is already connected to the Skywise system and provides some 60,000 parameters per flight. With Skywise, operators of Airbus aircraft will be in a position to leverage the cumulative knowledge of the 20,000 Airbus engineers who have tracked the performance of each individual aircraft over its entire operational life. Moreover, by integrating their operational, maintenance, and aircraft data into a secure and open platform, airlines will be able to store, access, manage, and analyse selected Airbus data together with their own information and global benchmark data without the need for additional infrastructure investments

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