NASA Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign Deputy Lead Shivanjli Sharma discusses the “third revolution” in aviation.
NASA’s vision for Advanced Air Mobility is to help emerging aviation markets safely develop an air transportation system that moves people and cargo between places previously unserved or underserved by aviation, using revolutionary new aircraft. The agency’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate is hosting the Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign series with a goal to promote public confidence and accelerate the realization of emerging markets for passenger and cargo transportation in urban, suburban, rural and regional environments.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Flying drones, air taxis and package delivery services alongside piloted aircraft
- Industry trends and technologies that are revolutionizing aviation
- Efforts to enable electric vertical takeoff and landing flights as part of everyday operations
Shivanjli Sharma is the National Campaign Deputy Lead for the Advanced Air Mobility Project, which is focused on enabling emerging aviation markets for passenger and cargo transportation in urban, suburban, rural and regional environments. Sharma has worked as an aerospace research engineer across many disciplines at NASA Ames Research Center over the last several years. She has performed research and helped conduct studies in real-time simulation environments for flight deck automation, operations and procedures as well as air traffic controller focused simulations for terminal arrival operations. In addition, Sharma has been involved in deploying software and hardware to facilities in the National Airspace System to enable efficiencies in integrated arrival, departure and surface operations. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s in aerospace engineering from the University of California at Davis.
Shivanjli Sharma: There’s a great deal, I think, of hope and potential revolution in terms of how we move people and goods through the development of advanced air mobility.
This has a real impact, I think, on our everyday lives.
What NASA really saw as we surveyed industry and saw this new market is what we like to call kind of a third revolution in aviation.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome back to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
This is our first episode of 2021 and we’re looking ahead to the future of aviation. NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure future air taxis, drones and package delivery services can all fly harmoniously in our National Airspace System, or NAS, alongside piloted aircraft.
Shivanjli Sharma is a National Campaign Deputy Lead under the Advanced Air Mobility Project and joins us now. Shivanjli, thanks for being our guest on the podcast.
Sharma: Thank you for having me.
Host: Could you tell us about the campaign?
Sharma: Sure. The Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign is a project that’s focused on conducting a series of flight test operational demonstrations with partners across vehicle, airspace, as well as infrastructure providers as part of our community integration to create an ecosystem in which we can fly real-world scenarios to collect the data we need to further the ecosystem as a whole and promote public confidence in the safety of these operations, as well as create an integrated system in which we can develop insights into the regulatory and operational environment, as it needs to evolve to enable electric vertical takeoff and landing flights as part of our everyday operations.
Host: What’s the genesis of the Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign?
Sharma: So, like most innovation, it really came from a couple of areas. So converging technology, plus identification of a commercially viable market. But really, I’d like to focus on the converging technology piece.
One of the things that we’ve noted as a trend in industry over the last several years is electrification of propulsion, improved battery life, for aviation, increasing use of fly-by-wire system, increasing use of automation and autonomy, which are two distinct things, having both of those grow as well as the technology platforms that enable increasing automation, both on the flight deck, as well as the ground systems and services that support aviation as a whole. All of those components have been growing quite a bit over the last several years in both the traditional aviation market as well as a series of startup companies that are looking into a new form of aviation.
And what NASA really saw as we surveyed industry and saw this new market is what we like to call kind of a third revolution in aviation. We like to think of the Wright Brothers in 1903. They made the first flight with a powered aircraft using their aluminum block engine. The second revolution occurred in 1939 with the first jet engine, which allowed for heavier lift, as well as higher speed flight.
And today, one thing that we’ve noticed is this increasing energy and excitement around this third and current revolution, where we have electric motors with batteries capable of producing the energy density needed for flight, as well as what we refer to as electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, where you can have a reduced footprint in terms of not necessarily needing a runway, but just like how helicopters operate today, leverage smaller areas in which you can take off and land and complete missions across a variety of use cases, whether that’s inter-city or intra city, urban or rural use cases, public services like emergency transport, as well as personal transport.
All of those use cases opened up as a result of those converging technologies that I mentioned. And that’s really where urban air mobility and advanced air mobility really started.
Host: What are some of the emerging aviation markets that NASA and the national campaign could enable?
Sharma: Yeah. So, there are several markets. Really, what we’re looking to enable is the ability to move people, cargo, goods, as well as enable emergency services, public services safely in areas where they’re either previously not served or underserved by aviation using these new aircraft that are just really enabling these missions to become possible.
And so, some of these missions involve what we refer to as the air taxi model, where, very much like in today’s environment you can use your app on your phone to call up a car to go from one point A to point B using potentially a multimodal transport system, so using different forms of transport along your trip, this form of aviation would be embedded in that multimodal transport system to enable further ranges for travel as well as those use cases that previously have not been opened up before.
So those are some of the areas in which we’re exploring under the Advanced Air Mobility Project. And one of the things that I wanted to mention is that there are a whole host of different form factors for these vehicles that may contribute to their different use cases and missions. So, these vehicles may have ducted fans with a combination of a number of rotors, so multirotor aircraft. There are tilt wing configurations that use a combination of powered lift plus traditional winged-cruise flight as well as a whole host of other form factors as new vehicle models and new manufacturers are developing new types of electric vertical takeoff landing vehicles that are based on new propulsion systems.
So, it’s a fairly significant range of use cases that are being explored. But I would say at the heart of all of those use cases and at the heart of the Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign mission is the integration of all of those services to really enable a safe ecosystem that enables both the evolution and safety of the aircraft, allows for those vehicles to operate in our existing NAS and a future NAS as we have a higher volume density of a whole host of other vehicles, including small UAS, the infrastructure development that’s really needed to support this new mode of aviation, as well as community engagement. And community engagement comes in a number of forms and factors, but it’s that ecosystem, that integrated ecosystem that we are really focused on enabling.
Host: Could you talk about the structure or function of the national campaign and how it helps to develop these markets?
Sharma: Sure. So, the national campaign really started as the technologies were advancing, as the ecosystem was coming together. The idea was to have a series of demonstrations in a real-world environment of not only the readiness of the vehicle itself, but the integration of the vehicle with airspace service providers, the infrastructure that’s needed, and really understanding what are the routes, procedures and data that’s needed to ensure that we can have safe and secure operations in the NAS today. And it’s really flight demonstrations that will allow us to fly a range of different use cases and scenarios to understand how passenger transport and cargo delivery may occur under varying weather and traffic conditions that we will be generating through a live virtual construct.
So we can create this environment in which we’re flying live flights, partnered with vehicle companies, partnered with airspace third party-service providers which are emerging as part of this market, partnered with infrastructure providers, and creating this ecosystem in which flight demonstrations can occur so we can really move and raise the water level for the industry as a whole to enable these operations in a safe and secure way.
Host: How important are partnerships in moving forward with this activity?
Sharma: Partnerships are essential for the national campaign, and it’s both partnerships with private industry as well as with our government partners, including the FAA. So, in terms of the industry perspective, partnerships with aircraft manufacturers are essential so that we can conduct those flight demonstrations. Partnerships with these third party airspace service providers that have come out of and have been developing as part of the small UAS development environment that started with UTM and now is expanding into the urban air mobility market and advanced air mobility market, where we expect, similarly, we will need third-party airspace service providers to provide additional functionality in addition to air traffic control in order to support the number and volume of these vehicles in the future, as well as partnerships for infrastructure provider, whether that’s new technologies to enable safe landing, the lighting systems that may be associated, the tug operations that might be associated with moving these vehicles from pad to pad, services such as weather, terrain, digital services that will really enable this ecosystem to operate safely as well as the secure communication navigation services.
So partnerships with companies that are providing technologies like radar applications for lower altitudes, as well as technologies to enable communication links between the ground to the air as well as a vehicle to vehicle, those are all going to be essential as partnerships for NASA in the national campaign so we can conduct this ecosystem-wide set of flight demonstrations.
And then in terms of partnerships with the FAA, that is a very strong collaboration that we are really fostering through a series of weekly meetings with our stakeholders across a number of lines of business within the FAA, such that we can really collect data and collaborate with the FAA to help understand what are current policies and standards for enabling this market, and then how do those policies and standards need to evolve over time. And what data do we need and what data can we collect through our flight demonstrations to enable that evolution? And that’s another key partnership for the national campaign is working closely and tightly coupled with the FAA to really enable this industry.
Host: And as you’re working to create the ecosystem to enable this industry, how does community factor into the planning and implementation?
Sharma: Community plays a very strong role. So public acceptance is really key to enabling advanced air mobility, but community comes into play in a number of factors. It could be a noise consideration. So, the national campaign is partnering with a number of different organizations, including partner projects like RVLT and ATMX. Those are research projects that are focused on understanding the airspace integration, as well as understanding noise characteristics. And so, understanding how noise is perceived on the ground, how noise is perceived potentially in the cabin, what is the ride quality for these vehicles as they are performing different maneuvers and approach and departure procedures at different glidepath angles than traditional aviation. Understanding all of those components is really key and part of community integration.
And the other part of community integration is working really closely with local communities, local governments, local municipalities, such as city and state department of transportation entities, to really understand if we have in the future a network route of these vehicles flying in both urban, suburban and rural environments. What are the policies and regulations from a local government perspective that need to be enacted to enable these operations? And so that’s another key part of community integration, and that’s something that we’re exploring as part of the Advanced Air Mobility Mission Integration Plan.
Host: What are some of the testing scenarios and recent activity supporting the national campaign?
Sharma: The national campaign is focused on a series of scenarios that enable testing in an integrated fashion. Those scenarios enable both point A to point B planning, so trajectory planning and conformance monitoring of the vehicle as it flies from one location to another, understanding the vehicle’s performance as it flies a simple trajectory, understanding how a vehicle and its performance characteristics may interact with a third party airspace system or a third party airspace service provider. And then understanding how even in a nominal operation, what the approach and departure procedures are associated with that vehicle.
So, these vehicles have a whole host of different performance characteristics depending on their form factor, and their performance characteristics directly impact the routes and procedures they can fly. And these include procedures like missed approach procedures in case the need were to arise, and understanding the off-nominal cases are just as important as understanding the nominal cases.
So the scenarios we’re studying include not only the trajectory generation and flight path planning that I had indicated, but also include that integrated sense in terms of the two-way network flight plan communications, having simulated vehicle and operational contingencies so we can understand if the need were to arise during terminal operations how a vehicle would fly if an emergency were to occur and understanding what are the constraints in terms of the vehicle performance. If a vehicle were to fly today using the current NASP policies and processes, well, how would that vehicle interact with our national airspace system?
Understanding traffic avoidance and trajectory management, and really understanding how do we have scenarios that enable those approach and departure procedures in the presence of real structures. And this includes buildings, real-world environmental conditions like winds, et cetera. And understanding those whole host of scenarios is fairly important to really collecting the data which is at the heart of the national campaign.
Host: So, is the team starting to capture lessons learned that can be helpful to government and industry?
Sharma: Yes. The team has been working quite hard. The national campaign team deserves a lot of credit for the fact that we were able to conduct a series of flight tests, initial flight tests to really get us started in what we refer to as the anchor and evolve strategy. So right now, we’re in the anchor phase. And what that means is we’re currently conducting what we refer to as a national campaign dry run. As part of dry run, we’re flying an OH-58 Charlie helicopter as a representative UAM vehicle. And with that representative vehicle, we’re able to test out these approach and departure procedures I had referred to, our scenarios, as well as test out the national campaign’s flight test infrastructure, so our instrumented system that we’ll be able to deploy in order to support a number of future national campaign activities and flight demonstrations.
So, through these dry run activities, we’ve been able to collect some initial data. We conducted our first flights with a helicopter December 2nd through 4th. So, it was quite a milestone for the team and we were very proud to be able to accomplish that in today’s environment.
And some of the lessons that we’re learning are the following, what are the communication protocols when we’re working, not only between NASA and the FAA, but also third parties that may be involved like our industry partners? What are the data processes that are required? How do we share data with the FAA? And then not only share that data, but use that data in a meaningful fashion in collaboration with the FAA. Those are some key takeaways and lessons learned from our initial flight tests.
We’ve also learned a lot about our scenarios themselves. So, the routes that are capable of being flown and how those routes are developed, that’s also been a big lesson learned from our recent flights. Also, understanding what are the different indicators needed and platforms needed on board the vehicle to collect the right data that we’re looking to to support our scenarios. This includes instrumentation, the airspace integration and connectivity piece, as well as understanding how a flight test engineer or piloting control would be communicating with one another in order to execute our flight test cards. So those are all really important lessons learned from our initial flight tests.
Host: Shivanjli, what aspects of your experiences so far could you share that might be helpful to NASA technical workers and project managers?
Sharma: So one thing that I personally have seen which I think is interesting and I think important, not only for the national campaign, but for other NASA projects as we continue to work with industry, especially industry that might not be traditionally in the aviation field, so startups, et cetera, is that, from the NASA perspective, we have our traditional systems engineering and integration approach. So, we follow a series of NPRs in order to go through a waterfall development process. That waterfall development process consists of sequential reviews, system requirements reviews, PDRs, CDRs, et cetera.
And that waterfall process is important, but that waterfall process also implies that the requirements are mapped out and known before the execution of a particular test. But for the national campaign and the mission that we’re trying to really move forward, those requirements may not be completely known as this is an evolving and newly developing field. And so, we might need a different life cycle process that we tailor and adapt to not only work more closely and more aligned with our partners, but also enable our team to operate in more of an agile fashion, where we build a little and test a little is really the motto that I think captures this agile type of development process.
So, the agile development system process is something that’s used in software consistently across both industry and NASA. And I think if we can combine some of those aspects of agile with the traditional waterfall process, not only will we be able to execute safe flights, but also, we’ll be able to iterate more effectively and incorporate newer requirements as we understand and develop them, and as we work more closely with our industry partners.
And so I think that is one of the key lessons that I’ve taken away from my work on this project, is how do we combine traditional NASA waterfall processes with a more agile process to create a merge of the two to really enable us to move the ecosystem forward, which is our goal under the national campaign.
Host: Looking ahead, how do you see this activity affecting our everyday lives?
Sharma: If the technology develops and continues the path of development that we perceive it to continue, this has a real impact on, I think, our everyday lives, whether it’s receiving goods to our personal homes, the manner in which we may receive goods, the manner in which you and I may move from point A to point B could be directly impacted by the role of this technology as it develops.
And that’s really why NASA is taking a role here, is if we can enable these eVTOLs to fly safely and securely and integrate within our NASP, integrate within and develop the new infrastructure that’s needed, integrate within our communities, both in terms of local governments, as well as the community perception of this new form of transport, it really can impact our daily lives. And we can see some great benefits in terms of emergency use cases as well in public services that can be enabled through this emerging market.
So, there’s a great deal I think of hope and potential revolution in terms of how we move people and goods through the development of advanced air mobility.
Host: So, if you could articulate what’s in your mind’s eye, I would love to hear what your vision is of the future. Practically, how does that look once we get all of this into place?
Sharma: There’s been quite a bit of discussion about timescales and what the future looks like. Obviously, people have in mind a Jetsons-type view of the future, and who wouldn’t want to enable that type of vision? But I do think change will occur incrementally and over time. And I think in the next five to 10 years, we will start to see some of these new form factors and new vehicles start to operate within our existing NASP. And then as the number of vehicles and the volume and density increases, along with the automation that’s needed to support the vehicle performance as well as its operations within our NASP, I think what we’ll see is increasing complexity and increasing density of these operations over time.
But those timescales, even to me, I think are still yet to be determined at looking beyond five to 10 years. I think it really depends on the maturation of the technology, how the business use case evolves, and how we really enable this ecosystem. And so there are a number of factors that I think are going to play a role here.
There are a number of barriers that we are exploring that I think are critical to enabling this type of transportation. Those barriers include some fundamental CNSI barriers. So how do you enable secure and robust communication in a digital framework? That is going to be a key unlock that’s required to really enable this technology to flourish and be part of our lives on a daily basis.
And so that’s just one of the factors that I think that we’ll need to explore, along with how do you certify and perform V&V of the increasing automation onboard a vehicle as well as just part of our ground systems.
And so, as we begin to conduct research, continue to conduct research, gather data, collaborate with research partners, the national campaign really hopes to pull all those threads together to see if we can begin unlocking those barriers to see if we can enable that vision.
Host: Shivanjli, it’s been so interesting hearing about this vision for the future and all of the work and the technologies. Thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast.
Sharma: Thank you for having me. It was great speaking with you.
Host: You’ll find links to topics discussed on the show at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast, along with Shivanjli’s’s bio and a transcript of today’s episode.
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