The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Collins Steps Up Involvement as Advanced Air Mobility Enabler

Collins Aerospace is engaged in two significant European projects aimed at preparing the way for advanced air mobility (AAM) services using eVTOL aircraft and drones. The U.S-based group views the emerging aviation sector as an important platform for its expertise in avionics, flight control systems (including actuators), autopilots, and electric propulsion.

In the French cities of Toulouse and Bordeaux, it is involved in the beginning stages of the Tactical Instrumental Deconfliction and Inflight Resolution (TindAir), which will involve flight demonstrations starting in early 2022. In the UK, Collins is contributing to the government-backed Future Flight Challenge program to integrate autonomously operated vehicles into non-segregated airspace.

Eurocontrol has made it clear that safe and reliable command and control links will be critical to ensuring the viability of the new types of aircraft and missions envisaged for AAM. “This capability is the key to urban air mobility [UAM], and until now it has really not been fully explored,” Collins strategy development manager Pierre-Oliver Garros told FutureFlight. He explained that his company is contributing to efforts to ensure that robust technology and processes are in place so that the new vehicles “flying over my head are not relying on cellphones [to communicate].”

Part of the purpose for TindAir is to pave the way for the future European U-Space, which is how Eurocontrol refers to the airspace infrastructure for unmanned aircraft. New detect-and-avoid technology will be critical to avoiding collisions between aircraft and also buildings, and the process also depends on all operators having access to the same type of data so that they understand the traffic that is surrounding them.

To address this need, Collins is tapping its expertise in communications and connectivity. It has developed an early prototype of a C-band radio that will first be deployed in the Toulouse flight trials, and later in NASA testing in the U.S., with a range of up to around 60 nautical miles.

The company is also working on new control and non-payload communications (CNPC) links so that operators on the ground can communicate with pilotless aircraft without the latency that could compromise safety. The envisaged infrastructure will use ADS-B data to avoid conflict.

According to Garros, the task of integrating unmanned and autonomous aircraft into airspace may prove to be more straightforward in the U.S. and China, where singular agencies oversee air traffic management. By contrast in Europe, despite Eurocontrol’s oversight, there are multiple air navigation service providers across multiple states.

Garros's colleague Sean Camilleri, who is Collins’s head of strategy for mission systems, said that the creation of a fully integrated airspace that can accommodate unmanned aircraft will also benefit existing airliners and other civil aircraft that are expected to be operated with increasing degrees of automation. “It will take a layered approach so where we know there is no CNPC data link, we can switch to a satcom or 4G link managed through a UTM [unmanned traffic management] service,” he explained.

The Future Flight Challenge program is now in its second phase in a series of projects that are intended to culminate in a UTM demonstration at the Farnborough International Airshow in July 2024. Collins is leading the program’s work packages focused on traffic management solutions, and data analytics and exploitation.

According to Camilleri, the company’s WebUAS UTM tool, which competes with products from companies such as Air Map and Altitude Angel, is a true aviation-grade solution that integrates CNPC data links as well as providing situational awareness, conformance monitoring, and strategic traffic deconfliction. “It connects right across the [UTM] infrastructure, allowing you to plan more efficient operations and also have the best communications link possible, ensuring that your mission goes on even if [the vehicle] drops its link and you don’t have direct control,” he told FutureFlight. “[This approach to UTM] is mainly about strategic deconfliction in four-dimensional space and time and employs conformance monitoring to see that you are staying with your [operational] plan. Strategic deconfliction probably avoids 95 percent of the risk.”

Collins Aerospace also offers its simulation systems as a building block for AAM, which potentially will have a large requirement for pilots or remote vehicle operators. One of its products is a three-dimensional whole-earth database to support pilot training that can be connected to a flight control computer to make it possible for trainees to fly in a virtual environment. “This allows operators to iteratively test their concept of operations without having to do this work when runways are not in use,” Camilleri explained.

The group, which was reformed in late 2018 when United Technologies acquired Rockwell Collins, also offers a range of autopilots and flight controls for unmanned aircraft. In addition, it produces sensors for functions such as sense-and-avoid, detect-and-avoid, and traffic surveillance.

The company’s portfolio also includes a new common mission system called Rapid Edge that can be adopted to manage unmanned aircraft missions and functions. And it is developing compact, lightweight electromechanical actuators for eVTOL aircraft.