NASA has relaunched the UAM Grand Challenge as the AAM National Campaign. The goal is to mature the eVTOL ecosystem through a series of technology field tests.
By Jim Sherman
VFS Director of Strategic Development
Vertiflite, May/June 2020
In 2015, NASA began a four-year project to provide guidance for low-altitude (under 500 ft/150 m) air traffic management for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). This UAS Traffic Management (UTM) project set out to define all aspects of lowaltitude traffic management including airspace management and geo-fencing, weather and wind, predict and manage congestion, terrain and man-made objects and safe separation. The program provided problem sets with increasing complexity, from unpopulated land (UTM-1) to autonomous, beyond visual line-ofsight, urban operations (UTM-4). The UTM project was led by Dr. Parimal Kopardekar who is now the Director of NASA Aeronautics Research Institute (NARI).
In August 2019, NASA successfully concluded simultaneous flight operations of multiple small UAS over complex urban environments. These flight demonstration tests were conducted from May through August — in Reno, Nevada, and Corpus Christi, Texas — with 35 partner organizations. The US Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) operational Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system for enabling small UAS operations expanded to 21 industry service suppliers and approximately 600 airports in 2019. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) governing the remote identification of small UAS was also published in December 2019.
Building on these efforts, NASA held an Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Grand Challenge industry day in November 2018, followed by an official kickoff on Aug. 27, 2019. The Grand Challenge — now the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) National Campaign — aims to improve UAM safety and accelerate scalability through integrated demonstrations. This will be accomplished by hosting a series of UAM ecosystem-wide challenges beginning this year. These challenges will support the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in developing an approval process for UAM vehicle certification, develop flight procedure guidelines, evaluate communication, navigation and surveillance (CNS) requirements, define airspace operations management activities and characterize vehicle noise levels. This information will be captured and communicated through UAM Maturity Level (UML) documentation from each stage, UML-1 (initial state) through UML-6 (ubiquitous operations).
At the VFS Transformative Vertical Flight conference in January, Starr Ginn, NASA’s lead for the effort, provided an overview of the Grand Challenge and its complexity, involving vehicle partners, airspace service providers, academia and local, national and international government agencies. At the beginning of planning for the campaign, Starr noted that NASA had to incorporate 30 lines of business from the FAA into the project. The challenge is to develop integrated systems for thousands of vehicles into the airspace without impacting the current National Air Space (NAS). Once constructed, the system will be evaluated with a series of four flying scenarios that will feed the UML-4 “Book of Requirements.”
NASA’s AAM National Campaign is a subproject under the AAM project, which is part of the NASA Integrated Aviation Systems Program (IASP).
NASA’s AAM vision is to revolutionize mobility within metropolitan areas by enabling a safe, efficient and convenient transportation system for passengers and cargo. The AAM National Campaign is structured to work with the AAM community to identify and address the key challenges to achieving this vision.
NASA announced the change in name from “UAM” to “AAM” in March and the single letter difference is significant. NASA views the term Advanced Air Mobility to “encompass developing and deploying aviation in transformative and innovative manners in order to provide aerial mobility in ways not typically seen today.”
Whereas VFS has focused on the technology — electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) — others focus on the mission independent of the technology. While UAM originally indicated transportation within a city (e.g. air taxis), NASA expanded the use of the term two years ago to also include goods and cargo. However, with the initiation of the AAM Project, the agency needed a more precise term to indicate what is and what isn’t included in its definition. According to NASA, AAM encompasses UAM (intracity transportation), regional air mobility (intercity transport and transportation to/from a city from an exurb or rural area), cargo UAS (but not small UAS for package delivery), and other similar concepts, whether vertical or conventional takeoff and landing.
National Campaign Activities
The first stage of the National Campaign — Developmental Test or NC-DT (formerly GC-DT) — will take place between July and November 2020 and, as the name states, focus on developmental testing. NASA will conduct full field tests in urban environments of US-developed aircraft and will include airspace operations management services to explore architectures and technologies needed to support future safety and scalability of UAM operations. Participants selected for the developmental testing will have the opportunity to fly at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, or a range of their choice, and participate in collaborative airspace operations. The evaluation includes all elements of UAM operations under a variety of weather, traffic and contingency conditions.
During the tests, NASA and government partners will record a wide array of flight data, including acoustics, vehicle fight performance, charging, pre-departure scheduling, etc. That information will be provided to the FAA to help determine vehicle certification requirements and, for some data such as acoustics, back to the participating companies for their benefit.
On March 3, 2020, NASA selected 17 partners for the NC-DT, and signed five-year Space Act Agreements. These industry partners are listed by area in which they will participate:
Developmental Flight Testing
- Joby Aviation of Santa Cruz, CA
Developmental Airspace Simulation
- AirMap, Inc., of Santa Monica, CA
- AiRXOS, Part of GE Aviation, of Boston, MA
- ANRA Technologies, Inc., of Chantilly, VA
- ARINC, Inc., of Cedar Rapids, IA
- Avision, Inc., of Santa Monica, CA
- Ellis & Associates, of Los Angeles, CA
- GeoRq LLC of Holladay, UT
- Metron Aviation, Inc., of Herndon, VA
- OneSky Systems, Inc., of Exton, PA
- Uber Technologies, Inc., of San Francisco, CA
- The University of North Texas, of Denton, TX
Vehicle Provider Information Exchange
- Bell Textron of Ft. Worth, TX
- The Boeing Company of Chantilly, VA
- NFT, Inc., of Mountain View, CA
- Prodentity, LLC, of Corrales, NM
- Zeva, Inc., of Spanaway, WA
As the developmental test program winds down, the next phase, NC-1 operational safety, will commence. NC-1 will provide a NASA evaluation of scenario virtual components, such as virtual traffic density and flight feasibility. It will also be a demonstration of vehicle/airspace system integration in virtual and hardware in the loop environments. Finally, NC-1 will provide a demonstration of extended UTM airspace capabilities in support of advanced NC-1 scenario requirements. Testing will begin in nominal conditions and introduce increasingly difficult scenarios, eventually to include multiple contingencies at the same time.
NC-1 is the first step toward the NC-2 testing in 2022, which will involve broad industry participation. NC-2 includes domestic vehicle and airspace partners and international vehicle companies that will have the opportunity to fly more complex UAM aircraft operations at testing locations within the United States.
NC-2, the first of a series of increasingly complex challenges will require participants to demonstrate safe operation of a piloted or remotely piloted aircraft capable of carrying a payload equivalent to at least one adult passenger within a complex, simulated urban environment. NC-2 will test UAM technologies against key barriers to UAM integration in the US national airspace, such as adverse weather, emergency landings, surveillance, loss of communication, and operations scheduling and routing. The scenarios developed for the National Campaign are designed to represent real-world UAM operations and address barriers for aircraft certification, operational safety and community acceptance.
In addition to NC-DT, NC-1 and future National Campaign flight tests, NASA is standing up a number of “ecosystem-wide working groups” to guide the National Campaign program, validating potential test scenarios that will address industry’s immediate and longer-term needs, as well as areas where the program could collect important data.
The working groups will represent a broad community and provide strategic input on the scenarios and other AAM topics around certifying the pilots, aircraft, airspace, autonomy, infrastructure and noise. Organizations can request to join working groups even if they are not participating in the initial National Campaign, and other related airspace stakeholders such as airlines are encouraged to participate as well.
More details are available on the NASA AAM website: www.nasa.gov/aamnationalcampaign