Take the movie The Fifth Element, set in the 23rd century with Bruce Willis as a flying taxi driver. While we’re still on the ground in the 21st century, it’s not a futuristic vision anymore to imagine flying taxis. That’s because they’re in production along with a variety of other flying transportation vehicles.
It’s easy to imagine why taking vehicles to the sky would be beneficial in radically improving urban mobility. According to a 2014 report by the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 54 per cent of the world’s population is now living in urban areas and traffic jams are a daily occurrence. Flying vehicles could be one solution to our traffic woes.
There are manufacturers prototyping and testing vertical transport systems; electric flying vehicles, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles, automated drones and remote piloted aircraft (RPAs). Take for example the flying taxi car prototype named Cora, currently under trial in New Zealand.
Some of the road-air based vehicles currently under trial
These flying vehicles can take off, hover and land vertically on the tops of tall city buildings or designated open spaces, and do not require runways. You might say that helicopters have been doing this for years, but the difference with electric flight is that it’s far quieter, they can fly lower, and they are more sustainable with low emissions.
There is no precedent for regulation or legislation to guide these types of ground-air vehicles taking to the sky. So, while the technology is rapidly progressing, civil aviation rules and legislative frameworks also need to progress to inform how these vehicles operate.
Traditional airspace can remain; however, the space closer to the ground requires a closer look.
Vital to moving into the sky is transport communication between vehicles, airspace controllers and people. We know that communications are necessary for traditional airspace navigation functions such as distance measurement, instrument landing and global positioning. But VTOL vehicles and RPAs are adding an extra level of complexity. Future communications systems will need to enable communication directly with individual consumers, provide flight safety for a potentially high volume of vehicles, and attach to small vehicles with minimal weight allowance.
The progress of vertical communications architecture needs to be considered together with the progress in the structural technology of flying vehicles. While possibly daunting, the challenge of how to integrate and coordinate communications systems isn’t insurmountable, merely one that’s important to address early.
These might be in the 3D airspace sooner than we think
In terms of vehicle communications systems, there are various considerations for vehicle manufacturers and stakeholders with a vested interest in the skies. The swift progression of flying vehicles nearing commercial availability warrants consideration of communications architecture for the integration of on-road and flying vehicles in a vertical transport system.
There are many different ways to approach the integration of communications architecture and big companies like Amazon are already starting in the race. As reported by CBINSIGHTS in January 2018, Amazon has a patent for the design of a new flight management system that uses sensors, processors and wireless communication to enable the automated, always-on detection of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operating within the airspace occupied by another UAV.
Out with the old…
In with the new...
While these communications technologies exist and are currently being used in autonomous cars, they would need to be enhanced to provide the longer-range sensing and recognition capabilities required to deal with the multidirectional and convergence speeds associated with autonomous flight.
Land-air communications network concept
Let’s look at some communications systems in more detail:
By using smartphones it will be possible to integrate communications with land and air vehicles. Using the smartphone GPS navigational systems, apps provide information to autonomous road vehicles that a pedestrian is waiting to cross the road, and the location from which they will cross.
In a similar approach, on-board systems in flying vehicles could detect other air vehicles. This would allow smart flying vehicles to avoid a collision by flying around obstructions or if it is a drone, by sending directions to the drone for it to move out of the flight path of the smart flying vehicle.
In 2018, the Washington Post reported that Americans order at least 3 billion pizzas every year. If less than half of the pizzas were delivered by on-demand aviation, it would equate to more than 4 million deliveries per day. That’s just pizza deliveries!
For this amount of traffic in our skies, flying vehicle manufacturers are looking at advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and cognitive systems to enable collision avoidance.
While artificial intelligence has allowed for rapid improvements in the automation of flying, it makes the vertical communications systems even more critical for collision avoidance.
Many collision avoidance communications systems have been theorised and simulated, but not too many have been significantly tested in functioning vehicles.
AI has been widely reported in the news in recent months having been on board aircraft that have been grounded or crashed with tragic results.
The very topic of AI should be discussed with great caution when trusting lives to automated systems. Further discussions, research and testing is required about what other applications it should or will have with unmanned vehicles.
Safety is the core of any decision on communications architecture. Even though the sky takes us into the third dimension with different heights affording multidirectional travel simultaneously, safety is still a key issue. How will swarms of flying cars integrate into already busy commercial airspace, or the urban airspace? New and unprecedented rules will need to be set that ensure flying vehicles are safe. Safe in their construction, safe in their movement through the sky and safe in the communication with other vehicles, central control and people.
James Burgess is the co-lead of Project Wing, a drone delivery initiative of Google-owner Alphabet’s X Lab, and he forecasts that in just a few years there are likely to be thousands of drones in the air, so we’ll need systems that can dynamically route automated vehicles not only around each other, but around manned aircraft, buildings, terrain, weather patterns and special events.
Burgess believes that the management of potentially thousands of automated vehicles could be achieved through a fast, high bandwidth, secure, and robust communications architecture, coupled with a sophisticated communications network such as 5G.
Communications technologies do exist, as outlined in this story; however, there are currently limitations to their integrated use in the skies and in connecting horizontal and vertical transport systems. Beyond research by the likes of Amazon, further research is required into emerging flying vehicle communications systems to be confident in their ability to manage sky traffic movements.
Detailed studies also need to be undertaken into the communications networks for:
Civil aviation agencies are starting to play their part and need to continue in the progressive conversations on how to define the flying and automated corridors so that delivery of products such as pizzas, books and emergency supplies can coexist with passenger flying vehicles and traditional aircraft.
But we don’t have long because the rise of vehicles into the skies isn’t merely a futurist’s vision, it’s now a reality. Two decades ago, the likelihood of a flying car sounded like science fiction. So, where will we be two decades from now?
Rich Mitchell is a Senior ITS / Communications Engineer in Aurecon. He provides design consulting services on projects within the Intelligent Transport Systems, Rail, Light Rail, Mining and Power Generation industries.