“When will we integrate autonomous flight into the airspace system?” This question unlocks the biggest opportunities for advanced aerial mobility. Predictions abound in the discussion of late, but let’s set timing aside and look inside the journey to get there and how we can better affect the outcome.
Beyond new air vehicles, advanced aerial mobility requires a vastly more capable flight environment. The future airspace system required to support urban air taxis, drone logistics networks, and other applications requires autonomy throughout in order to support high density. It also extends to support short urban flights and more types of ground infrastructure as aviation is integrated into wider mobility. Throughout, the airspace system must continue to demonstrate safety, security, and public acceptance. Solving for this requires a complex system of systems. While not beyond our technological capability, success depends on starting with the right plan.
Gaps exist between today’s National Airspace System and what we will build. Our task touches systems tying together air vehicles, airspace, surveillance, communications, and infrastructure. Clearly, it’s a huge challenge. Safety-critical operations fly with lives in the balance. The irregularities of the real world, from unpredictable weather to the vagaries of the human element, must be accommodated in both nominal and contingency situations.
Such challenges can appear dauntingly difficult to surmount. With innumerable system interdependencies and needs of different stakeholders, where do we start? How do we coordinate?
Moreover, how do each of us gain the clarity needed to commit resources to build and contribute our part?
Clarity comes from an agreed goal and understanding of the big picture. Our plan must be collaborative, involving public and private stakeholders. Beginning at systemwide scope, we should create a high-level roadmap describing a progression of milestones, each a new capability for the airspace system.
Systems in other industries have enjoyed a more passive evolution, converging on design by letting innovations compete, with the best rising to the top. However, the realities of the National Airspace System, with its low risk tolerance, public and private stakeholders and strong regulatory involvement makes it unworkable to self-assemble new capability out of a mass of independent innovation efforts.
A capability roadmap guides us to the standards we will need. Standards are important for bridging from high-level requirements to detailed implementation. While standards define specifics, they depend on the external context of a bigger picture for their requirements and constraints. A well-defined high-level architecture that describes the system of systems, subsidiary roles and responsibilities, and the points of interface is critical to identifying where standards are needed and what they need to achieve.
It follows that our starting point is to collaborate on the capability roadmap. What is a capability? Instrument flight is a capability we have already built. Autonomous flight, in various forms, could be a future capability. The roadmap drives agreement on the vision and setting of priorities, it helps us identify gaps, and it provides the clarity to enable all of us to commit resources to execution. However, balanced against clarity should be flexibility, in particular with respect to how the capability might be applied to new operations or business models.
Building new capabilities into the airspace system will be a stepwise journey. The historical progression of capability supporting instrument flight reflects this. Each future advance, whether for drones or piloted flight, can be thought of as a capability milestone. Milestones break the larger problem down, reducing complexity, while the experience gained at each step informs the definition and development of the next.
Getting the milestones right is critical. The selection of a milestone (i.e. the capability it delivers) is as important as clarity in requirements and the collaborative process by which they are derived. How feasible is the milestone? How useful will the milestone be in enabling new operations in the airspace? These considerations must be balanced. Each milestone must define critical requirements including roles and responsibilities, high-level architecture, and required performance levels.
The process to define a milestone should take input from all key stakeholders, including regulators, other affected parts of the public sector, and the private sector. The process should be conducted by those with authority to make decisions for the National Airspace System and they should be held accountable for timely delivery of the milestone and its full set of requirements.
A coordinated, purposeful approach to requirements and the roadmap can identify needs for standards earlier, yielding a better end result and saving years of time. Absent this approach, the consequences can hold back an entire industry. For example, the integration of drones into the National Airspace System originally lacked sufficient coordination. While early rules for line-of-sight operations passed smoothly through federal agency review, the FAA in late 2016 sent proposed rules for operations over people through review and the national security agencies (DoD, DoJ, DHS, DoE, etc.) surfaced requirements for remote identification capability and other security measures that effectively blocked the proposal from moving forward. This late-stage realization has delayed the industry for three years and counting as we develop standards and proposed rules for remote identification.
Without doubt, there have already been changes that reflect lessons learned from this experience. However, we should closely examine how a more proactive and collaborative approach to requirements could have addressed remote identification years earlier as we look forward to the even more complex tasks that lie ahead.
Our goal is to get everyone on the same page through a collaborative process that is held accountable for its progress, so we can move fastest. We should aim to supply the private sector with the clarity needed to commit resources. With clarity, the private sector is proven able to define product and strategy and to deliver rapid innovation through commitment of financial and human capital.
Our goal should also be to provide regulators with a structured performance-based safety case to enable to them to commit to milestones and requirements early, thus driving further clarity for all other stakeholders. This buy-in early in the process is crucial.
Finally, milestones and their respective requirements should be very clear in support of the above goals but remain flexible to technical implementations, striking a balance between the need for an organized plan and the need to iterate and be flexible to entrepreneurial approaches that produce unexpected leaps forward. Through a performance-based approach to requirements, we can achieve this while also providing a clear pathway to integrating future improved capabilities.
In summary, our challenge becomes more manageable when we first agree on a roadmap of high-level requirements. Requirements can design in safety by construction and build a performance-based safety case that regulators can get behind from the beginning. Clarity from the plan gains buy-in from the private sector, unlocking investment and creating a host of opportunities. The right plan is the biggest success factor to integrating autonomous flight into the airspace system in a timely manner. With it, we can stop guessing when it arrives and rather discuss crisply how it will happen.