The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

On The Radar

Current Air Traffic Management Technology and Structures Are Inadequate for Urban Air Mobility

Operations by new eVTOL aircraft in and around major metropolitan areas will reach an inflection point amounting to thousands of daily movements between 2026 and 2028. That’s the good news, according to German startup D3 Technologies; the bad news, it claims, is that existing air traffic control service providers will not be able to cope with the volume of activity expected from urban air mobility (UAM) and, what’s more, are fundamentally ill-suited to the task.

In its recently published white paper “Air Traffic Control for Urban Air Mobility,” the Munich-based company lays out the case for providing a new integrated approach to air traffic management (ATM) and argues that it is on track to deliver what’s needed. It argues that it will not be sufficient for the emerging passenger-carrying UAM sector to simply adopt technology and processes developed for existing unmanned aircraft system traffic management (UTM).

According to D3, the current lack of a fit-for-purpose structure for managing airspace is one of the key barriers to the successful expansion of UAM, with the others including public acceptance, unresolved ground infrastructure needs, and regulatory issues.

“The limiting factors of airspace capacity today are air traffic controllers’ workload and the cognitive capabilities of pilots on the one hand, and the ability to ensure vehicle trajectories to very close tolerances on the other,” the D3 team argue. “To make urban air mobility at scale a reality, a paradigm shift for air traffic management is needed; only a highly automated air traffic management system will be able to scale and meet the traffic demand. The currently proposed ‘first-come-first-served’ approach limits capacity and therefore public value drastically.”

The white paper includes a review and critique of existing industry ATM proposals from the likes of Airbus, EHang, Eurocae, and FAA. It essentially maintains that none of the industry’s existing air traffic control system manufacturers has yet directly addressed the need for the technological approach that D3 believes is required.

D3’s manifesto is distilled into three core beliefs: that the future urban air traffic management environment should be highly automated; that it should allow for regional competition with no single service provider for each country; and that it should integrate unmanned and passenger-carrying piloted aircraft in the same low-altitude airspace.

The company claims its ATM concept is unique in consisting of an integrated air-ground system that automatically provides air routes to aircraft to fly their preferred routes. “The D3 airborne component will allow the air vehicle to stay on its assigned air route, and will automatically receive updates from the ground segment on other air traffic, airspace availability, obstacles, etc.,” it explained. “This will allow for inherently conflict-free routes.”

D3 was founded in July 2019 with the initial seed backing from investors including Riedel Communications and Previdus as well as individuals such as Christian Lindener, who is global head of Airbus Bizlabs. It has just closed a second seed funding round through which it raised an additional €2.5 million ($3 million). It plans to launch another investment round at the end of 2021.

The company aims to begin flight testing of its avionics, ground station, and communications system by mid-2021, and it plans to be ready by the end of the year to conduct some initial trials in a test area near Munich. It believes that the fully integrated ATM package will be ready to support piloted passenger flights by 2024 and fully automated operations by 2026. At that point, the company estimates annual revenues from air traffic control services from operations across three metropolitan areas could amount to at least €110 million.

During the development phases, D3 is working with an undisclosed company that is providing air-ground communications that have already been used in aviation via a dedicated 4G/5G network. It aims to partner with multiple eVTOL aircraft manufacturers to test the airborne system component, and later with early-adopter UAM cities and service providers.

The D3 leadership team has extensive aviation experience, under the direction of founder, CEO, and chief technology officer Corvin Huber, who previously ran German aircraft manufacturers Extra, Remos, and Econoflug. The company’s head of air traffic control is Ralph Schuppenhauer, who was program manager for next-generation air traffic management with German ATC agency Deutsche Flugsicherung, and its head of avionics is Otto Bommer, who was formerly program manager for the Airbus 400M aircraft’s mission management computer.