New UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) applications and ATM (Air Traffic Management) automation: though these traditionally have been main coverage areas for deep aerospace industry followers, our airspace is now in everyday headlines, from a new drone program focused on saving lives to a self-piloted VTOL passenger aircraft for urban transportation to a drone based cargo delivery system. Among the countless conversations and proposed solutions, there are two constant themes: 1) the number of vehicles in the air is projected to rapidly increase and current ATM systems cannot support these new levels of traffic and 2) it’s a complex challenge that must be solved with all parties at the table.
Based on internal estimates using data from a variety of public and private sources¹ we predict that by the year 2035, there will be between one and two orders of magnitude more aircraft in the sky, depending on jurisdiction, population density, geography, and economic needs. In real numbers, this means we will see several hundred vehicles ranging from delivery UAS and urban mobility, to remote sensing and high-altitude communications platforms in the skies above our cities. That’s in addition to more traditional airborne vehicles including commercial aircraft, general aviation, rotorcraft, and sailplanes. According to the FAA, there are about 5,000 aircraft in the U.S. airspace at any given time of day. This may seem manageable for now — but not when you consider the future UAS volume.
Bottom line, current air traffic management systems are not equipped to manage that traffic, meaning that a fundamentally new approach is required.
Altiscope uses a simulator built for evaluating ATM policy options and operational models that can enable all forms of airborne traffic in a wide range of geographies and jurisdictions. Based in Silicon Valley, our team is already working on discrete projects with a variety of global organizations across the public and private sector on aspects like risk modeling and operational analysis. For example, we might evaluate how urban air mobility vehicles, cargo drones, and commercial aircraft interact in the vicinity of shipping and logistics hubs or explore rules demonstrating the safety and feasibility of utilizing UAS in rural areas for transporting medical aid. We’ll be gathering new data throughout the process so that what Altiscope can be used to accomplish evolves and expands.
Creating the new order of the sky isn’t a new question and there are many parties working to solve the complexities of this pressing challenge. Altiscope brings a unique perspective to the table.
To start, we aren’t building an ATM system and we aren’t beholden to a specific policy, product or geography. Rather, Altiscope’s unique simulation framework is policy agnostic and globally relevant.
What exactly does that mean? Other ATM efforts are making tremendous strides in this space, typically focused on a given set of operation and mission goals. On the other hand, we are focused on evaluating different options for the new rules of the air and aren’t specifically tied to any particular ATM architecture. We aim to create a framework that accounts for any type of aircraft operation, system, aircraft platform, geography and mission profile — without prioritizing one kind over another. Successful future airborne traffic management depends on a solution that is both flexible and scalable as yet-unimagined applications are developed and take flight.
Plus, Altiscope is backed by Airbus and has access to the company’s international network. We are one phone call away from people working on every relevant domain to the future of air traffic management, from vehicles to operations and from safety to certification. Our efforts are complementary, but distinct given we’re rooted in Airbus’ Silicon Valley outpost, A³. We’re developing Altiscope in an open ecosystem using a small internal team to partner with the best minds around the world.
On behalf of my counterparts Joe Polastre, Jessie Mooberry, Richard Golding, the rest of the Altiscope team and our A³ and Airbus colleagues, we’re excited to debut Project Altiscope and look forward to sharing our progress. Questions, thoughts, concerns? You can reach us at Altiscope@airbus-sv.com — we look forward to hearing from you.
Karthik Balakrishnan is the Project Executive of Project Altiscope at A³. Prior to joining A³, Karthik was the Co-Founder and CTO of Coin (acquired by Fitbit), a VC-backed digital payments and consumer electronics startup. He has also worked with NASA Ames and Goddard, and The Aerospace Corporation, on projects ranging from planet-exploring robots to launch vehicles. Karthik holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University where he designed and built advanced spacecraft technologies for the detection of gravitational waves in space, and a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from UC San Diego.
A³ (“A-cubed”) is the advanced projects and partnerships outpost of Airbus Group in Silicon Valley, with a mission to disrupt Airbus Group and the rest of the aerospace industry before someone else does. For more, please visit airbus-sv.com.
¹ The Boston Consulting Group. “Drones Go to Work” (Apr. 10, 2017). Amoukteh, A., Janda, J., & Vincent, J.: www.bcg.com/publications/2017/engineered-products-infrastructure-machinery-components-drones-go-work.aspx
Goldman Sachs. “Drones: Flying Into The Mainstream” (May 1, 2017). Poponak, N.: http://www.goldmansachs.com/our-thinking/pages/drones-flying-into-the-mainstream.html
SESAR. “European Drones Outlook Study: Unlocking the value for Europe” (Nov. 1, 2016). Staff.: https://www.sesarju.eu/sites/default/files/documents/reports/European_Drones_Outlook_Study_2016.pdf