While many eVTOL makers have kept autonomy in mind while designing their aircraft, most upcoming designs feature piloted solutions, with some semi-autonomous pilot-assistance capabilities. As these aircraft have come closer to certification, it’s become apparent that commercial airworthiness for these electric aircraft will likely come before fully autonomous flight, meaning that autonomy has become a less immediate goal.
However, flight autonomy company Xwing has now formed a three-year partnership with NASA to begin developing safety frameworks and infrastructure infrastructure standards for autonomous flight.
Currently, Xwing’s work includes creating autonomous flight systems for existing aircraft, such as modified Cessna Grand Caravans. In 2021, the company flew the world’s first fully autonomous cargo flight with one of these aircraft. In this flight, the fixed-wing aircraft was able to back out of its gate, fly a predetermined mission, and pull into a gate at the destination, all fully autonomously. The ultimate vision of the company is to create systems that will allow many kinds of aircraft to completely autonomously fly pre-set routes.
In Xwing’s new partnership with NASA, the two organizations seek to establish what impact autonomous aircraft may have on national airspace, and build safety procedures for autonomous operations and design. The partnership will allow data to be shared between the two organizations, and first aims to evaluate safety arguments around runway detection and identification for vision-based landing. It will also assess aircraft localization assurance processes and enhance GPS, according to NASA.
Said Marc Piette, CEO, Xwing: “There are different components associated with doing this. A big part is the safety case, that comes with system safety analysis, data analysis to ensure these vehicles can integrate safely with other traffic whilst being able to perform all the phases of a set mission.”
With the partnership, Xwing will also begin to share data captured from its non-autonomous part 135 cargo fleet as well. NASA’s System-Wide Safety Program (SWS) Project Manager said, “NASA focuses its research and technology transfers to have real impact, and this will help NASA understand the real-world challenges that industry is facing. Emerging aviation relies heavily on advanced automation to ensure safety, and Xwing is working to bring novel, safe aviation opportunities to the American public.”
Why it’s important: As more eVTOL aircraft take to the sky in dense urban areas, need will likely arise for artificially intelligent air traffic management softwares to assist pilots and air traffic control in airspace management. As these systems become more prevalent, systems like Xwing’s will likely eventually integrate with these to allow aircraft to act in accordance with this airspace guidance. Eventually, research being conducted by Xwing and NASA could mean that aircraft could fly completely autonomously, coordinating airspace with one another through software. It’s possible that under pilot supervision, we may be able to see these technologies begin developing within the next decade, as urban air mobility and autonomous flight evolves.