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Making Sense in Low Altitude

Companies offer emerging technology solutions for the urban air mobility market.

Through its Agility Prime program, the U.S. Air Force arguably led the way in creating an American-based urban air mobility (UAM) ecosystem. In addition to spurring the design and manufacturing of UAM aircraft—think delivery drones, air taxis, quadcopters, electric and fuel-based vertical takeoff and landing vehicles—the program pulled in related companies over the last several years to support transportation in the sky under 5,000 feet in altitude. U.S. companies—such as SparkCognition, Xwing, Pierce Aerospace, OneSky and Persistent Systems—are offering a new way of air traffic management and identification like the stalworth but manually based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). These new-age systems employ artificial intelligence, autonomy, computer vision and mesh networks, among other capabilities.

Presently, there are no regulations in the United States guiding beyond visual line-of-sight operations for drones and other autonomous aircraft—especially for any aircraft under 55 pounds. While waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) promulgation of rules, companies are developing solutions to provide a confluence of functions for UAM operations: flight path determination, remote identification, unmanned aerial system traffic management (UTM), detection and avoidance, and in some cases, Department of Defense command and control and counter-unmanned aerial support.

And although experts, such as Logan Jones, president and general manager of SparkCognition Government Systems, predict that it will be “a while” until we have unpiloted, autonomous vehicles flying in the skies, they see the UAM environment in cities being even faster paced than the present-day’s carefully orchestrated air traffic management system.

“That airspace [requires] a little bit different problem solving, although you traditionally have more sensors and more radars that are dispersed there because of the altitude,” said Jones. “If you think about UTM as a value chain, you have to have assets like the radars that can see in the airspace and you have to have some sort of ability with software to identify what those assets are, whether it be ADS-B, or using AI [artificial intelligence] to identify what the signature looks like and classify it that way. And then you have to pull this together to create some sort of way that an operator would interact with it, for the decision support tool that goes into it.”

Based in Austin, Texas, SparkCognition provides artificial intelligence-related solutions to the energy, financial, education, retail, manufacturing and cybersecurity industries. It is also employing machine learning in the UAM market, providing solutions to federal customers. SparkCognition and The Boeing Company have a joint venture called SkyGrid, under which they developed a UAM operating system that performs airspace deconfliction and route planning.

“We have a partnership with AFWERX and Lyft, who is one of the players in that space, to bring it into Eglin Air Force Base, for example,” Jones shared. In addition, the company has deployed solutions with the Navy’s Taskforce 59, “where we take all sorts of data types, we fuse it together, we use models that create anomaly alerts and tee up decisions for the operator to make,” he stated. “At the core of it, that’s what UTM adds. And from a C2 [command and control] standpoint, we’re compatible with 5G, 4G. A lot of C2 flight control systems, especially on small drones, use that, he said.

SparkCognition’s concept of operations deconflicts flight operations at the ground control station level. In a partnership with Raytheon, SparkCognition is harnessing Raytheon’s MARS radar. “We use the same controllers that they use in air traffic control,” he said. “So that visual aspect of it, we use ADS-B data to get flight tracks, and we use artificial intelligence to predict where routes are going and what normal behavior looks like. When there’s anomalies from that, an operator gets involved, and they can make a decision, and I wouldn’t call it an interdiction, but [they] really interact with the systems.”

Jones and other officials see the UAM market emerging between 2025-2030, with corporate players “moving fast.”

One example of that quick growth is Xwing, a San Francisco company created in 2016 that has a valuation of $400 million. Xwing started by making detect and avoid software but quickly moved into having its own fleet of autonomous aircraft, centering on its autonomous AutoFlight system installed into existing planes and into new vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. Last summer, the company purchased two air cargo carrier fleets, including Dallas-based Martinaire Aviation and Seattle-based AirPac Airlines. The company has improved its AutoFlight solution to work across taxiway, takeoffs and airborne and landing operations and is awaiting FAA approval for its fleet, a representative said.

In addition, UAM companies are commonly pursuing “dual-use” technologies for both commercial and military application—with the market for some extending well beyond America into the globally burgeoning UAM market.

For example, in January, Indianapolis-based 2017 startup Pierce Aerospace announced a partnership with India’s Skye Air Mobility to bring Pierce’s integrated remote identification solution—the Flight Portal ID—to Skye’s drone delivery platforms and unmanned traffic management platform later this year. It is an important partnership for the company, and as the United States works out its UAM regulations, India’s drone market is expected to grow rapidly, said Aaron Pierce, the CEO of Pierce Aerospace.

“We’ve been looking at effectively taking the similar developments that we’ve done in the United States and take those over to the Indian market so we can provide them with remote identification both for their commercial applications, as well as security applications to make sure that the law enforcement and security side of the Indian government has awareness for airspace like what we need here in the U.S.,” Pierce explained.

Pierce Aerospace’s solution involves a remote identification technology suite of receivers, broadcast modules, software, integration capabilities and remote administration services. The capability is already integrated in the United States with over a dozen commercial UTM, detection and avoidance, command and control, and counter-unmanned aerial systems. Pierce Aerospace also has three contracts with the U.S. military and is currently executing the third with the U.S. Air Force. Pierce anticipates that the upcoming FAA regulations will require remote identification of unmanned aerial systems that weigh between 0.55 to 55 pounds. He said that, essentially, the company wants to provide “digital license plates” for drones.

“ADS-B is how commercial airliners and manned aviation broadcast their telemetry, their identification,” Pierce continued. “Remote ID [identification] is kind of like that but for drones. ADS-B was prohibited by the FAA from being utilized in that 55-pound and under category, as it would just overtax the system. Being able to differentiate what and who is where would be challenging, and the ADS-B also wasn’t really designed for low-level air spaces where remote ID works off of a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, local broadcast. Remote ID is designed to be much more effective in a local broadcast area where you’ve got an immediate need to know.”

The company has grown since pursuing a mentor-protege relationship two years ago with Northrop Grumman to execute integration of Pierce’s remote identification/combat identification and their Flight Portal ID technology suite with Northrop’s M-ACE counter-drone and forward area air defense C2 products. It also partnered with geospatial company ESRI to apply ESRI’s geographic information system tools in optimizing planning and implementation of the Flight Portal ID system, including its broadcast ground receivers.

Most communications or traffic management systems for urban air mobility will still harness ground control stations, despite relying on emerging technologies for airborne operations. Persistent Systems is using its multiband tracking antenna to support urban air mobility applications. Credit: Persistent Systems
Most communications or traffic management systems for urban air mobility will still harness ground control stations, despite relying on emerging technologies for airborne operations. Persistent Systems is using its multiband tracking antenna to support urban air mobility applications. Credit: Persistent Systems

Meanwhile, Skye Air’s UTM platform is a cloud-based system that coordinates unmanned air traffic in the manned aviation airspace. The solution registers more than 250 “drone movement parameters,” stores the data in a “black box” that provides a systematic description of an entire flight and offers a three-dimensional view of the drone airspace, including real-time airspace status, verified paths and display of unmanned aerial vehicle movements. The company is working in 10 Indian states with clients such as Flipkart (Walmart Group), DHL, Aster Healthcare and others.

Persistent System’s Adrien Robenhymer, vice president, Air Force and Intelligence Community, and a large team are helping customers put the company’s traditional MPU5 radio technology into UAM applications to provide communications in the sky. The radio capability is joined with their tracking antenna to create data links not only between the air vehicles and the ground stations, but also for air vehicle-to-air vehicle networking.

“With our technology, it’s been really great to kind of get back into the fact that these are networks, not just what the aviation community used to call telemetry radios with very small bursts of traffic, which are rudimentary compared to the technology that we’re providing into the industry, because of the safety, because of how fast transactions have to happen,” Robenhymer noted. “Our technology really has been great from the standpoint of creating this spiderweb, a MANET [mobile ad hoc network] and a mesh network [in the sky], to make sure that things stay on track, even though there are no tracks anymore.”

Persistent Systems emphasizes the need for UAM aircraft to be able to switch seamlessly across connectivity nodes while flying. For their system, they network through a crucial “cloud relay” capability that allows networking across other systems, such as cellular fiber, internet or satellite.

“When you’re going farther distances, the curvature of the earth impacts the line of sight of that air vehicle and so what cloud relay does is it helps you keep multiple nodes interconnected,” Robenhymer stated. “When conditions get disrupted, that could be from going beyond visual line of sight, or when the power goes out in that area, it’s a feature that’s in every wave relay device, that has a way to gateway to other networks. And it’s very fast to transition. ... And you don’t need a big spire on the Empire State Building. You can have multiple redundancies to make sure that there’s no centerpiece of failure.”

In addition, OneSky is offering UAM solutions that provide real-time situational awareness and decision support around airspace assessment, operations, traffic management and operations centers. “Our goal is to bring automation and efficiency in a more connected digital environment,” said Chris Kucera, OneSky’s head of strategic partnerships. “All drones are going to be connected, so we know where they are. We can command them anytime, but it’s digital. We’re not talking to a pilot, we’re commanding an autopilot.”

The air traffic management aspect for UAM rests on the idea of a federated environment versus the traditional centralized system under the FAA, where coordination of airspace, at least at the lower altitudes, will look different, Kucera said. “If there’s a bunch of drones that are delivering packages, and then somebody nearby is doing a legacy crop duster mission, flying that low altitude, not seen by radar or ADS-B, how do we know that the crop duster is there and how do we stay away from them,” he offered. “What UTM could do is say, ‘If you’re doing that, and you don’t want to get hit by a drone, then just tell us where you’re operating; give us a polygon, saying in this box, there’s a manned aircraft here over the next two hours.’ And the network of drones would stay away from that box.”

OneSky’s capability is similarly based on ground control being able to interface with the UTM system. “And there’s many different types of ground control stations out there, and so, our challenge is to integrate with as many as we can to give people options,” Kucera suggested. “And [our] fast-paced real-time UTM is based on the concept of strategic deconfliction … and we’re doing it in a new way. We’re doing it by understanding the flight path plan and building volume around it.”