Tech Challenges of On-Demand Mobility Written 10 January 2018

Panelists: Moderator Michael Patterson, aerospace technologist, NASA’s Langley Research Center; Danette Allen, senior technologist of intelligent flight systems, NASA’s Langley Research Systems; Brian J. German, Langley associate professor, Georgia Institute of Technology; Andrew R. Gibson, president, Empirical Systems Aerospace Inc.; Ken Goodrich, senior research engineer, NASA’s Langley Research Center; Stephen Rizzi, senior researcher for aeroacoustics, NASA’s Langley Research Center

By Tom Risen, Aerospace America staff reporter (2017-2018)

Participants in the discussion, “On-Demand Mobility — Enabling Technologies and Capabilities,” Jan. 10 at the 2018 Science and Technology Forum in Kissimmee, Fla.

Technologies that led to the boom in consumer drones are making it possible for companies to build a new generation of electric vertical takeoff and landing craft, or eVTOLs, but businesses aspiring to on-demand mobility face new obstacles. Engineers and NASA technologists detailed these challenges Jan. 10 during the “On-Demand Mobility — Enabling Technologies and Capabilities” panel at the 2018 AIAA SciTech Forum in Kissimmee, Florida.

Distributed electric propulsion, propeller technologies and autonomous flight software are among the technologies pioneered by consumer drones being used in aircraft designs that can expand conventional on-demand flight and enable new air cargo delivery and sky taxi services.

NASA held a series of workshops two years ago that came up with a prioritized list of 10 barriers to on-demand mobility, the foremost being ease of certification, affordability and safety, said Michael Patterson, an aerospace technologist with NASA’s Langley Research Center.

“If one of these doesn’t get addressed, the whole thing probably doesn’t happen,” Patterson said of the list of 10 priorities, which includes community noise reduction for the aircraft.

Public acceptance will also depend on certification and safety concerns about autonomous flight software, said Danette Allen, senior technologist of intelligent flight systems at NASA’s Langley Research Systems in Virginia. The public will also have to clear up misconceptions about autonomous flight, Allen said, explaining that “unmanned” is not the same as “autonomous,” because aircraft are not autonomous if humans are still waiting at monitors ready to intervene.

Designing an electric aircraft around the electric propulsion source can give manufacturers a head start on addressing safety and efficiency, said Andrew R. Gibson, president of California-based Empirical Systems Aerospace Inc. Gibson’s company is the prime contractor for NASA’s X-57 plane, which aims to be quieter and five times more energy-efficient during high-altitude cruising than a combustion-driven plane of the same size.

Ken Goodrich, a senior research engineer at Langley, said there has been “a tipping point the last two or three years” at the agency, which is more interested than ever in on-demand mobility in part because of progress in driverless cars.

“As somebody who has had a passion for small aircraft going back to when I first started at NASA several decades back, the idea of using advanced automation to make airplanes simple to fly has always faced a healthy amount of skepticism,” Goodrich said.


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