If the urban air mobility (UAM) industry lives up to its hype, someday in the not-too-distant future thousands of eVTOL air taxis could be operating at airports and vertiports around the world, offering passengers a convenient new way to travel across cities while bypassing traffic jams. But UAM won’t be immune to the weather delays, staffing shortages, and other operational glitches that have recently plagued airlines, disrupting flight schedules and inconveniencing passengers on a daily basis.
To help airlines and future air taxi operators prevent delays and minimize the impact of schedule disruptions, California-based tech start-up Moonware is developing a solution that it says can use artificial intelligence (AI) to automate just about every aspect of ground operations. The software platform, called Halo, uses real-time location data to automate task assignments and resource allocation, improving operational efficiencies that lead to flight schedule disruptions.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, commercial flights are canceled or delayed due to circumstances within the airline's control at a rate 10 times higher than those disrupted by weather. Those delays stem from airline staffing and maintenance issues, as well as outdated and inefficient information technology (IT) systems. IT shortcomings were highlighted by Southwest Airlines’ infamous scheduling crisis in December 2022, when a system failure forced the cancellation of two-thirds of flights.
Moonware believes it can significantly reduce or possibly even eliminate preventable flight disruptions by using AI and real-time location-tracking information to deploy personnel and ground-support equipment to the right place at the right time. Eventually, the company plans to introduce autonomous ground vehicles that the Halo software can automatically deploy without the need for human oversight.
In 2020, Moonware unveiled its concept for a self-driving, electrically powered aircraft tow tug that could transport both large airliners and small eVTOL aircraft around airfields and vertiports. The company is also working with Skyway, a start-up developing AI-powered navigation services for UAM vehicles such as eVTOL air taxis, to digitally integrate ground operations with urban air traffic management systems.
For now, the company is focused on using Halo to improve operational efficiencies at airlines, and it has already secured its first airline customers. Moonware says Halo will enter service later this year, but the company isn’t disclosing its launch customers just yet. Company founder and CEO Javier Vidal told AIN that Halo is launching with both passenger and cargo airlines, including “one of the largest European hub airlines.”
How Halo's AI Software Works
“We're building the ecosystem to automate and optimize on-the-ground operations for airfields in real time,” Vidal said. To do this, the Halo software uses two live data streams: flight-tracking information and the precise positions of all ground equipment and personnel.
Moonware will install low-cost GPS tracking devices on all ground vehicles to keep tabs on their positions, while the locations of personnel can be tracked using personal devices like smartphones and tablets provided by the airlines, Moonware co-founder and chief technology officer Saunon Malekshahi told AIN. Using this data, the AI software automatically deploys personnel and ground equipment in the most optimized way possible.
The system can be thought of as somewhat of a hybrid between the types of software used by ridesharing services like Uber and scooter- or bike-sharing companies like Lime and Bird. Drivers for ridesharing services are “always in their cars, they have a phone open, and they can use their phone for everything,” Malekshahi said. When a customer needs a ride, the software matches that mission to the closest available driver. On the other hand, people looking to hop on a scooter or bike will need to locate one within their vicinity.
“The airfield is kind of a hybrid problem between both of these scenarios in which people are not necessarily always on equipment—they only use equipment when they need to actually perform a certain service mission,” Malekshahi said. “For that reason, it's a dual optimization that we do between matching people to the right equipment that is available within their vicinity, which then they will take to service a flight that they've been assigned or dispatched to.”
In the context of ground operations at an airfield, this approach can “reduce delays, reduce congestion in the airfield, and reduce block times,” Vidal said. “But we don't stop there. Our vision is to create fully automated and sustainable airfields.
“When the software is in place, we will weave in autonomous vehicles into the operation powered by the software, which will increase the value proposition even more,” Vidal continued. “Through autonomous vehicles, we can not only further reduce delays, but we can also reduce accidents, reduce fuel costs, reduce the cluttering of all the vehicles from the gates, and essentially manage really efficiently all of the ground movements in airports.”
From Airlines to Urban Air Mobility
Although Moonware’s first customers will be airlines, the technology can be applied to all sectors of aviation, including UAM and military operations, Vidal said, adding that Moonware has been in discussions with the U.S. Air Force.
Vidal explained that when he and Malekshahi founded Moonware in 2020, they initially focused primarily on UAM. The company had partnered with Uber Elevate (which has since been sold to Joby, a California-based eVTOL company) to develop autonomous tugs specifically for air taxis at vertiports. With UAM vehicles not expected to be certified and in service until 2025, it made sense to first launch the Halo system with airline customers that are already operating—and that desperately need to upgrade their outdated IT systems to improve their operational efficiency.
Regarding UAM and other advanced air mobility applications, Halo can be especially useful for managing autonomous aircraft, like Wisk’s eVTOL aircraft or Xwing’s remotely piloted cargo operations using converted fixed-wing aircraft like the Cessna Caravan. “A lot of these aircraft are being designed with autonomy in mind. They're going to be powered by really advanced fly-by-wire capabilities, and they are going to be controlled by really advanced airspace management tools,” Vidal said. “We envision airports actually becoming hubs uniting all these different modes of air travel with dedicated terminals for eVTOLs, for supersonic and hypersonics, and regular commercial jets that we have today.”