Military and industry leaders agree that funding and available engineering talent are likely to be key challenges for the growing urban air mobility industry. Photo: Agility Prime
As the Air Force seeks to ensure domestic technology leadership in electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, military and industry leaders agree that funding and available engineering talent are likely to be key challenges.
Where Does the Money Come From?
Through the Defense Innovation Unit, the military has provided some funding to eVTOL aircraft and technology developers, including between $10-20 million to Joby Aviation, according to DIU director Michael Brown, speaking during Agility Prime’s virtual kickoff week.
Agility Prime, the Air Force’s new effort focused on eVTOLs, has awarded Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts to Sabrewing Aircraft, Elroy Air and other aircraft developers worth a few million each. But the vast majority of funding for urban air mobility startups has come from the private sector, and the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted fundraising activities worldwide. Analysts have reported 20 to 40 percent year-over-year drops in dealmaking activity.
This has hit the eVTOL sector particularly hard, as the primary source of funding for many well-capitalized startups has been strategic venture funds run by traditional automobile and aerospace companies. Joby’s recent $590 million raise included a $493 million investment from Toyota. Zhejiang Geely, Daimler and JetBlue Technology Ventures have all been active investors in UAM as well.
“Not only does [this crisis] create a challenged operating environment for mobility startups, it’s also creating the same environment for many of their financiers,” Asad Hussain, senior mobility analyst at Pitchbook, told Avionics International. “That affects the funding environment for the startups in the space, and if we hone into urban air mobility, I think there’s a real possibility of technology companies — Tencent, Intel Capital, Nvidia — being in a position to gain a larger foothold.”
Most Silicon Valley-based venture capital firms have avoided the UAM space, according to Kirsten Bartok Touw, founder of AirFinance, for four reasons:
For the U.S. military, there’s a greater concern: the source and motives of capital flowing into defense innovation. A 2018 study by DIUx described early-stage investment in U.S. advanced technology companies as part of China’s “technology transfer strategy,” with Chinese participation in all venture deals reaching 10-16 percent.
Threatened by years of defense-related intellectual property theft by China and other adversarial nations, in 2019 the Pentagon launched its Trusted Capital Marketplace, an effort to vet sources of funding and match them with small- and mid-sized innovative defense companies.
“Trusted Capital is DoD’s forward-leaning approach to confront adversarial foreign investment by offering critical technology companies, including those in the UAS market, funding alternatives to potentially risky foreign investments,” said Jennifer Santos, deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy. “We’ve already lost footing on the small UAS front, and we want to make sure that changes brought about by COVID don’t send us back on the next frontier, eVTOL.”
Trusted Capital and Texas A&M University hosted the first Venture Day in November, focused on small UAS, an area where the United States has largely failed to develop companies able to compete against Chinese industry leader DJI. The group’s focus for the month of May, according to Santos, will be supporting defense supply chains through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In June, Trusted Capital will partner with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center to jointly host a venture day for a range of critical technologies including radar, command and control systems, aircraft systems, unmanned aerial systems, data encryption, decryption, robotics, cyber, munitions, and machine learning,” Santos said, adding that her team hopes to expand the program to include sources of capital from U.S. allies.
Where Do the Engineers Come From?
The purpose of all that fundraising is to secure a U.S. competitive advantage in eVTOL technologies through the evolution of a profitable commercial industry, and money alone won’t build an aircraft. The availability of talented engineers is seen by industry as a major limiter to the rate of progress.
The Vertical Flight Society estimates that each eVTOL developer will need 500-1,000 engineers to bring their aircraft concept to certification. Those companies will be in competition with the helicopter industry, which is also seeking thousands of engineers in the coming decade for military and civil rotorcraft development projects, including the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift procurement effort as well as other Navy and Air Force programs.
“The workforce is one of those critical bottlenecks that is going to prevent us from reaching this future that we all want, if the talent pipeline is not soon ramped up,” said Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society. “We’re estimating we need a thousand [new] engineers a year for the next decade to meet these critical national security and economic needs.”
Government and military-funded Vertical Lift Research Centers of Excellence (VLRCOEs), established in 1982 to support academic research and training, receive less than $5 million in static annual funding from NASA and the military. A white paper released by VFS in March contends that expanding funding for the existing VLRCOEs would be one of the most effective ways to confront the talent shortage.
“We already have a lot of great infrastructure that we can use here,” said Marilyn J. Smith, director of the VLRCOE based at Georgia Institute of Technology, speaking to workforce concerns during the Agility Prime kickoff event. “Teaching vertical lift is not a traditional engineering education that you get at the mechanical, aerospace and electrical engineering schools across the country.”
Farhan Gandhi, aerospace program director for the Center for Mobility with Vertical Lift at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, advocated for three new funding efforts: an increase of $5 million per year for VLRCOEs to fund more graduate students; $1.5-2 million to hire late-career experts as adjunct professors; and an additional $5 million to fund more tenure-track faculty.
Gandhi also suggested reviving the now-defunct Vertical Lift Consortium, a combined government-industry funding pot for pre-competitive research work, to advance eVTOL-related research and provide more projects for academia.
These efforts, totaling $17-18 million in annual funding, could produce up to 100 additional Masters and PhD-level graduates per year, Gandhi said — not sufficient to satisfy industry need, but these individuals could “form the linchpins” of development teams that companies build around.
Leaders in vertical lift academia also advocated for programs to expand the scope of their existing educational programs to better support eVTOL aircraft and urban air mobility, with Smith noting that the University of Maryland will introduce a graduate program in eVTOL design this year.
Carlos E. S. Cesnik, director of the active aeroelasticity and structures research lab at University of Michigan, said the current mechanically-focused curricula should take a more “systems of systems” approach to including software, operational infrastructure and other elements of modern airspace systems.
“When designing an advanced air mobility system, automation, airspace integration, human-machine interaction, cybersecurity … all of these are as important as the airframe itself,” said Cesnik. “The challenge here is that most of these contributing disciplines fall outside most of the aerospace engineering programs.”
“If innovation is a battlefield, academia is our training camp.”
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The European Commission has officially delayed its June 7, 2020 ADS-B Out airspace mandate for operators of commercial airliners in the region, such as this TAP Air Portugal Airbus A321LR, until December 7, 2020. Photo: Airbus
The European Commission (EC) has decided to delay its mandate for operators to equip their aircraft ADS-B Out avionics from June 7, 2020 to December 7, 2020, according to an amendment published to the agency’s website May 5.
Under the updated regulatory language, operators of certain European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) registered aircraft will comply with the original provisions of European Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No. 1207/2011 and new amendments allowing certain non-ADS-B operations and a new three-year exemption for certain older aircraft types. Amending language to the provision adopted by the commission also referenced the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on airlines for the delay.
“The outbreak of the pandemic of COVID-19 virus and the resulting impact on the aviation sector has led to unforeseeable obstacles for aircraft operators to pursue their activities to bring the aircraft in compliance with certain requirements of Implementing Regulation (EU) No 1207/2011. As a result, the deadline for aircraft operators laid out in Article 5(5), Article 8(1) and Article 8(2) of Implementing Regulation (EU) No 1207/2011 should be postponed to 7 December 2020, and Implementing Regulation (EU) No 1207/2011 should be amended accordingly,” the amendment says.
Changes to Europe’s ADS-B Out mandate adopted by the commission include amendments first proposed by regulators in February, which generated comments from airlines, installers, avionics suppliers and others about the proposed changes.
Operators that submit fleet plans indicating their aircraft will cease operations by October 31, 2025 are also exempted from the ADS-B equipage requirements under the new amendments. Other aircraft that can fly without ADS-B after the new December 2020 deadline include those being flown for export or to undergo maintenance. Secondary surveillance radar aircraft transponder requirements are also outlined in the amended regulation.
Among the new changes are updates for operators of non-ADS-B aircraft operated for state or government purposes. On Apr. 8, Eurocontrol’s communication, navigation and surveillance division published a technical “leaflet” related to flight operations being conducted after the mandate becomes effective. Similar to the 2019 rules adopted by the FAA for non ADS-B military aircraft in U.S. airspace, special conditions are being provided for operators of state aircraft in European airspace that will not be equipping with ADS-B due to privacy or security concerns.
Eurocontrol and the SESAR Deployment Manager published the graph above, showing how many total airplanes registered in Europe are expected to be in compliance with the ADS-B Out equipage mandate by the new deadline, the June 2023 retrofit transition period and the end of the exemption for phasing out non-ADS-B aircraft by October 2025. Photo: SESAR DM
“State aircraft engaged on nationally sensitive operations or training exercises that require security and confidentiality, may also be allowed to revert to Mode A/C. Mode S (ELS and EHS) and ADS-B OUT are not secure from a military perspective,” Eurocontrol writes in the leaflet.
During an interview published in the April/May 2020 edition of Avionics, Akos Barany, ADS-B communications coordinator for the SESAR Deployment Manager described how the amendments to the mandate were designed to accommodate operators of older aircraft and can also help introduce a “transitional regime for the introduction of ADS-B Out and Mode S EHS functionalities in the airborne domain by establishing several exemption clauses and specifying the method for asserting an exemption in the ATC flight plan.”
“Air navigation service providers will appreciate the changes which greatly simplify the arrangements for sharing of surveillance data between providers,” he said.
Prior to the amended changes, regulators had been anticipating 76 percent of the region’s EASA-registered fleet of airplanes to be equipped with transponders and other enabling equipment necessary to comply with the mandate. The delay will be the latest form of operational relief for airlines in the region in recent weeks, following Eurocontrol’s decision in April to delay some 2020 payments on air traffic services.
European Business Aviation Association Secretary-General Athar Husain Khan expressed support for the delay in a statement published to the organization’s website, noting that the extra time will “ease some of the burdens on operators and help the Business Aviation sector continue to play its vital role in the fight against COVID-19 and the post-crisis European recovery.”
Read more about Europe’s ADS-B Out mandate in the latest issue of Avionics by clicking here.
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The view from one of the GoPro cameras installed in the C-130T Avionics Obsolescence Upgrade Operational Flight Trainer. The cameras allowed remote observation of live software tests in Fort Worth by engineers in Maryland, New York, and North Carolina over a two-day period last month. Photo: U.S. Navy
Due to travel restrictions because of COVID-19, the Navy and Lockheed Martin remotely tested software fixes for the latest software build of the C/KC-130T Avionics Obsolescence Upgrade (AOU) program in Fort Worth last month, the service said.
The two-day testing on Apr. 7 and 8 used the Maryland-based J.F. Taylor, Inc.’s modification of the legacy 2F-152 AOU Operational Flight Trainer (OFT) at the Air Logistics Training Center at Naval Air Station (NAS) Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base, Texas. J.F. Taylor received contracts worth about $7 million for the modification of OFT to the AOU configuration–work which the Navy said finished in January last year.
“Accomplishment of the two-day remote assessment was critical for determining if the software fixes a number of high-priority deficiencies that affected certifications required by the Department of Defense and Federal Aviation Administration,” the Navy said. “The proactive identification of content problems prior to the delivery of the final software in June and flight tests during the summer decreases the risk of program delays down the line.”
In a May 5 email to Avionics International, the Naval Air Systems Command’s (NAVAIR) tactical airlift program office (PMA-207) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Md. said that the “software configuration release addressed outstanding watch items to support NAVAIR submission for full RNP/RNAV [Required Navigation Performance/Area Navigation] certification for C/KC-130T aircraft commonly discovered during flight test.”
Lockheed Martin is using its Common Open Reuse Environment (CORE) cockpit for AOU. The company has said that CORE is the “first fully ‘app-based’ cockpit solution designed in alignment with the [DoD] Future Airborne Capabilities Environment (FACETM) standard.” The Bell V-280 Valor tiltrotor also uses the CORE cockpit. In March, the U.S. Army selected the V-280 Valor and the Sikorsky-Boeing SB-1 Defiant to move forward in the Future Long- Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) competition.
Under AOU, the Navy plans to upgrade 25 of the C/KC-130T aircraft. Congress has appropriated about $163 million for the program thus far, including about $13.7 million in fiscal 2019 and $22.7 million in fiscal 2020. The Navy’s fiscal 2021 budget requests $21.5 million for AOU in fiscal 2021.
A GoPro camera installed in the cockpit of the C-130T Avionics Obsolescence Upgrade Operational Flight Trainer at Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base allowed teams in four separate locations around the country to observe a software test while adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. Photo: U.S. Navy
Under AOU, Lockheed Martin is to replace “obsolete flight control displays, radios, and transmitters, with digital multi-function displays [MFD] and navigation, surveillance, and cockpit voice/data recorder equipment that will allow the aircraft to continue operating safely in the modern air traffic control environment,” according to the Navy. “Test completion of the AOU system is expected in fall 2021.”
In its email to Avionics, PMA-207 said that “AOU is a government Lead System Integration (LSI) program.”
“The AOU flight control display design, layout, architecture, and integration is completed organically,” according to PMA-207. “Radios and transmitters were procured through the NAVAIR Common Avionics Program Office. Digital multi-function displays were procured from Lockheed Martin. Navigation, surveillance, and cockpit voice/data recorder equipment were procured from multiple simplified acquisition contracts with Original Equipment Manufacturers.”
To allow the software tests last month in Ft. Worth to be observed by engineers in Lockheed Martin’s Oswego, N.Y. facility, NAS Patuxent River, Md. and Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division in North Carolina, the Navy used two GoPro cameras in the simulator cockpit in Ft. Worth to provide live feeds of the cockpit MFDs and the control display units.
“Using the live feeds, the engineering and test teams were able to direct Fleet Logistics Support Wing C-130 pilot Cmdr. Patrick Foreman in the execution of test cards prepared by VX-20 [at NAS Patuxent River],” the Navy said. “Although Cmdr. Foreman had only limited experience with the AOU program, the real-time guidance from the test team allowed him to easily complete the test points and provide thorough feedback on the results. The presence of the Lockheed Martin engineers enabled the team to troubleshoot and discuss test results as they happened, saving many hours that would have otherwise been spent documenting and conveying test results to the contractor.”
The Naval Reserve has 19 C-130Ts, which entered service in 1991, and VX-20 has six KC-130Ts, which achieved initial operational capability in 1983.
The Lockheed Martin KC-130J is to replace the C/KC-130Ts, which are to retire by 2033. The C/KC-130Ts are the Navy’s only cargo plane capable of moving oversized cargo, such as missiles, submarine masts, and fully-intact engines for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter.
“Ultimately, a transition from the aging C/KC-130T to the C-130J is necessary to ensure interoperability and
capitalize on the existing supply chain for these more modern aircraft,” Vice Adm. Luke McCollum, the chief of the Navy Reserve, told the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense panel on March 4.
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Auterion’s release of Skynode, a plug-and-play avionics and connectivity package based on the open-source PX4 ecosystem, aims to help drone manufacturers and service providers outsource software architecture and create more industry commonality. (Auterion)
With the U.S. government and military eager for a profitable domestic small UAS industry to emerge, software developer Auterion seeks to be part of the solution by bringing together the fragmented industry around its hardware and software solutions, built off of the open-source PX4 ecosystem used by millions of drones flying today.
The Switzerland and California-based startup this week released Skynode, an avionics and wireless connectivity package that drone manufacturers can either purchase as-is and integrate into their platform or license and re-design to fit their requirements.
“Built on top of open standards like FMUv5x, PX4, and MAVLink, Skynode with Auterion PX4 enables drone manufacturers to rapidly enter new markets by making their products compatible with an ecosystem of payloads, components, services, and workflow integrations that give companies the tools they need to deploy large fleets of drones,“ said Lorenz Meier, co-founder of Auterion and original creator of the open-source PX4 software base.
Auterion also partnered with GE Aviation on Skynode RTA, a version of the product that scales down GE’s commercial airliner-class autopilot system, used on the Boeing 777 and 787, to make Skynode certifiable for operations that require higher safety standards, such as cargo delivery in urban areas.
Skynode is a key component in Auterion’s strategy to help drone service providers and manufacturers focus their limited resources, avoid reinventing the wheel and in turn lower their costs — all goals shared by the U.S. military, which continues to raise concerns about the security of Chinese-made DJI drones.
“The Pentagon has to sign off on every Department of Defense use of a DJI drone,” said Dr. Will Roper, Air Force acquisitions chief, during the recent Agility Prime virtual launch — a program aimed at ensuring the military won’t face similar domestic supply problems with electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
DJI controls 75-80 percent of the small UAS market worldwide and, through its scale, has prevented the formation of an economically viable competitor in the United States. Through the action of Congress and the White House, DJI is swiftly being pushed out of the U.S. military and government markets, creating a billion-dollar opening many small UAS manufacturers — most with less than 1 percent current market share — are seeking to capitalize on.
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed into law December 20, prevents the military from operating, acquiring or renewing contracts for Chinese drones or drone components, including flight controllers, ground control systems and operating software. Auterion’s Skynode and the PX4 software ecosystem comply with the NDAA’s restrictions as well as the proposed American Security Drone Act, which is yet to pass either house of Congress.
In May 2019, Auterion was awarded a $2 million contract by the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to enhance its software architecture, moving toward standardizing the operating system for all small UAS used by the government and making every drone application — unmanned traffic management, data analysis, detect-and-avoid — plug-and-play across different hardware providers, reducing integration costs and training requirements while providing the Pentagon access to the rapid innovation of an open-source development ecosystem.
“That is a primary reason why DIU first — but now U.S. Army, Air Force, [DHS] Customs & Border Patrol, a lot of other departments — are looking at PX4 as an ecosystem and Auterion as the enabler of that ecosystem. Because they can jump on this technology curve,” Auterion co-founder Kevin Sartori told Avionics International. “And no single company can do that, apart from of course DJI because they have 4,500 engineers on staff. A small drone company like Vantage Robotics or Quantum Systems that has a dozen software engineers can’t compete with that ecosystem.”
That DIU contract was renewed this year, according to Sartori, and will convert into a program of record under the U.S. Army’s Short-Range Reconnaissance (SRR) effort to purchase systems based on the PX4 ecosystem, such as Quantum Systems’ Vector and Scorpion defense platforms, which were released in February in partnership with Auterion Government Solutions, a subsidiary company.
The original SRR solicitation, released in November 2018, includes requirements for “an open autopilot software stack” as well as “an open communications (mavlink) and video protocol,” referring to the MAVlink protocol originally developed by Auterion cofounder Lorenz Meier in 2009. The Army’s Long-Range Reconnaissance (LRR) program, to be released next year, is expected to include similar requirements.
“That first solicitation for the Group 1 software architecture already included PX4, MAVlink, QGC [flight control and mission-planning] — they came to it by using the technology first … and then asking for it more and more,” Sartori said. “Now, it’s a big part of DIU’s strategy, and it’s trickling down to other departments.”
What’s the easiest, cheapest way for companies to meet these requirements? To work with Auterion, Sartori said. His goal is to model Auterion after Linux Red Hat, which implements the open-source computer operating system for numerous enterprise, government and military customers.
“Red Hat works with 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies,” Sartori said. “Some of them, the 2 percent, are big enough so that they can implement their own version of Linux, and those are Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google. Everyone else uses Red Hat Linux.”
Red Hat’s enterprise business was not built overnight, but Sartori sees the COVID-19 pandemic as an accelerant that may increase the adoption rate of Auterion’s common platform.
“Crises change the way that we operate. There is a lot of cost pressure on the government as well as enterprises to save cost. Automation is one way, but not reinventing the wheel is another way,” Sartori said. “I could argue that Red Hat Linux would not be what we know today without the Dot Com bubble that just eliminated a lot of companies that were doing their own implementation of Linux. It was normal at the end of the late 90s to build your own Linux. No one would do that today … I think the comparison is pretty similar to the maturity of our industry.”
However, two of the aforementioned companies — Amazon and Google — are major players in the emerging drone delivery industry, through Prime Air and Wing respectively. It’s not clear whether they would choose to adopt Auterion’s technology, but Sartori isn’t concerned about that.
The company is working with DroneCode and ASTM to develop industry standards around the PX4 ecosystem, allowing larger players like Wing — which started with PX4, according to Sartori — the freedom to branch off and build their own implementation of the open-source code, while smaller players can essentially outsource their flight controllers, detect-and-avoid, autopilot and other systems to Auterion and focus on their core competencies.
If Auterion’s vision of the drone industry’s future comes to pass, Sartori believes the Western drone industry could become much more price-competitive with DJI for enterprise applications rather than cheaper consumer drones.
“The market that we can really disrupt is closer to $5-10,000 and up, where you can build a drone made in the U.S. that rivals the [DJI Matrice] M200 at the enterprise level,” Sartori said. “I think we can compete at that level today, provided that we have the hardware companies that will build such a system. And we’re lining that up, so mid-year you will see a couple of manufacturers bring to market drones that have the same benefit as an M200 and are compatible on pricing too.”
“The cost savings for an enterprise isn’t buying a drone that is $2k versus a better drone that is $10k, but rather getting rid of all the integration steps in between,” Sartori added. “It’s not only the cost of procurement but the lifetime cost of the system.”
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Sabrewing unveiled the prototype of its Rhaegal-A unamnned, heavy-lift VTOL aircraft, as well as a $3.25m R&D contract from the U.S. Air Force.
At the conclusion of the Air Force’s Agility Prime event on revolutionary VTOL aircraft, California-based Sabrewing Aircraft revealed their ‘Rhaegal-A’ prototype, an unmanned heavy-lift cargo aircraft that the company says will be capable of moving heavy payloads almost anywhere in the world — landing where many fixed-wing and VTOL aircraft cannot.
“The aircraft is designed to open new locations and deliver cargo where no fixed-wing or helicopter can go, and it’s also designed to land in locations where there is no pad or any other kind of structure,” said CEO Ed de Reyes, noting that the Rhaegal is also able to operate “where no battery, fuel cell or hydrogen tank can go currently,” an advantage it has over many electric and hydrogen VTOL designs under development.
De Reyes also said his company received a Phase 2 SBIR contract from the Air Force worth $3.25 million.
“Our SBIR contract provides R&D funding for using our navigation system and detect-and-avoid system to provide an aircraft position solution in a GPS-denied environment,” de Reyes said. “We will also test this denied GPS solution both on the test bench and in the air to verify that it works correctly. We will also demonstrate the Rhaegal aircraft’s ability to deliver cargo to remote locations and unimproved areas.”
Using the Safran Ardiden 3 engine to power four electric motors, the hybrid-electric Rhaegal-A will use four tilting ducted fans to reach speeds up to 245 mph, according to de Reyes, flying at altitudes up to 22,000 feet for a range exceeding 1,000 nautical miles.
During the Agility Prime launch, Air Force and other government leaders stressed the importance of electric VTOL capabilities for distributed logistics and sustainment as well as rapid deployment and response efforts. Service acquisition chief Dr. Will Roper told reporters the Air Force will buy ‘at least 30’ eVTOL aircraft.
“These new unmanned platforms can be used to drop needed supplies in remote areas, deploy and evacuate soldiers, and provide logistical spokes to make our military more agile and mobile,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said of the Sabrewing announcement. “It also has many civilian and industry applications such as mass transit, shipping, and even offering safe and secure access to areas where runways aren’t present — like in many parts of Alaska.”
Sabrewing has firm orders for more than 65 aircraft, according to the company, with letters of intent for up to 250 more following type certification, which de Reyes expects to receive from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December 2021 and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in July 2021. Customer deliveries are expected to begin in January 2021, with an ability to manufacture up to 500 aircraft per year due to the Rhaegal’s “unique modular construction,” according to de Reyes.
Rhaegal-A’s first flight tests, which will take place at Edwards Air Force Base, were originally slated to begin on June 1, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic will be delayed until quarantines are lifted. The aircraft is also a testbed for Sabrewing’s larger Rhaegal-B variant, which will be capable of carrying 5,400 lbs when taking off vertically and up to 10,000 lbs on conventional takeoff.
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Luuk van Dijk, a software development engineer who previously worked for technology giants Google and SpaceX, is the co-founder and CEO of Zurich, Switzerland-based startup Daedalean.
On this episode, we caught up with Luuk van Dijk, co-founder of Zürich, Switzerland-based startup and provider of autonomous flight control technology Daedalean. On Apr. 1, Daedalean and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) jointly published a report entitled, “Concepts of Design Assurance for Neural Networks.”
The report is the result of 10 months of work between EASA and Daedalean. According to EASA, the jointly published report is the result of a 10-month collaborative project between the two organizations with the goal of investigating the challenges and concerns of using Neural Networks (NN) in aviation.
Some of the results of the project will serve as a key enabler towards the certification and approval of machine learning in safety-critical applications onboard aircraft.
During our interview with van Dijk, he explains the differences between artificial intelligence, machine learning and how neural networks is effectively a subset of these concepts. The former SpaceX engineer also discusses some of the near term use cases of neural networks within aviation, including how they have been flight testing the use of one for image recognition, object detection and visual landing systems over the last few years in drones, air taxis and manned aircraft.
Have suggestions or topics we should focus on in the next episode as part of this new series? Email the host, Woodrow Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org, or drop him a line on Twitter @WbellamyIIIAC.
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The Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Blue Raven supercomputer is to execute artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms for neuromorphic computing on airborne platforms. Photo: AFRL
The United States Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) in Rome, N.Y. is working to develop neuromorphic computing for possible fielding on a drone in the next five years.
AFRL is looking to use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to boost processing power and give military operators analytical results, not raw data, in order to speed wartime decision making.
“Current technology and humans cannot keep up with the deluge of data from high resolution sensors on air platforms and the data is too large to send on slow communications,” Albert Frantz, senior computer engineer in the high performance computing branch of AFRL’s Information Directorate, wrote in an email to Avionics International. “If we can process the data on the air platform using AI/ML then we can communicate just what was found and not the raw data.”
In the 1980s, Carver Mead, a professor of engineering and applied science at the California Institute of Technology, introduced the neuromorphic computing concept. In 1986, Mead was one of two co-founders of Synaptics Inc., a company established to develop analog circuits based in neural networking theories for speech and vision recognition technologies. In 1990, he published his first work on neuromorphic electronic systems in Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
“Neuromorphic computing mimics the processing of neural networks in the brain,” Frantz wrote in his email to Avionics. “Neuromorphic computing architectures are necessary to achieve advanced and new capabilities in pattern recognition, event reasoning, robust decision making, adaptive learning, and autonomous tasking for energy efficient agile Air Force platforms.”
On July 19 last year, AFRL and IBM officially unveiled Blue Raven, what AFRL has called “the world’s largest neuromorphic digital synaptic supercomputer.”
“Today, challenges exist in the mobile and autonomous realms due to the limiting factors of size, weight, and power, of computing devices – commonly referred to as SWaP,” according to AFRL. “The experimental Blue Raven, with its end-to-end IBM TrueNorth ecosystem will aim to improve on the state-of-the-art by delivering the equivalent of 64 million neurons and 16 billion synapses of processing power while only consuming 40 watts – equivalent to a household light bulb.”
For the same SWaP, AFRL is “hoping to increase the processing by four orders of magnitude (10,000) times faster processing than we currently have,” according to Frantz.
Last year, AFRL awarded IBM $74 million of a possible $99 million for the project under a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for Robust and Efficient Computing Architectures, Algorithms, and Applications for Embedded Deep Learning. AFRL issued the BAA last year and updated it on Apr. 23.
“The contracts that were awarded late in [fiscal] 2019 will continue for three years into [fiscal] 2022,” Frantz wrote in his email to Avionics. “They used up all the funding we had for [fiscal] 2019, [fiscal] 2020, [fiscal] 2021 and [fiscal] 2022. Thus, we do not anticipate new awards this year, but we may or may not get funding in future years.”
Engineers and computer scientists at AFRL are to use Blue Raven to execute AI and ML algorithms.
The AFRL research and development under the BAA is “of a prototype nature and fielding is likely 4-5 years away and potentially could go on any platform, likely unmanned first,” Frantz wrote in his email to Avionics.
In addition to AFRL, the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been researching neuromorphic computing since 2008 when the agency began the Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) program.
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|We have a new acronym to add to the list: eVTOLs, UAM, AAM, and now — courtesy of the U.S. Air Force — ORBs. Not only do we have hundreds of vehicle designs competing for the urban air mobility market; we also have organizations vying for the best way to define them.The Agility Prime kickoff week, still ongoing, is certainly an impressive show of support for the industry. How big an impact will it make: on investor confidence, on speed of certification and deployment, and on U.S. presence/supply chain in eVTOLs 10 years from now?
Chris Timchak from Stone Point Capital, a financial services-focused private equity firm that has invested in Beta Technologies, gave an interesting market overview and answer to this question:
“I think we are concerned that there will be a ton of competition, and the corollary that we spend time thinking about is the auto industry at the start of the 20th century and how much companies exist today versus how many started back then from a manufacturing and design component. To mitigate that a bit, we think the market is big enough and there will be multiple participants and many successful designs, but the infrastructure is important to the entire ecosystem.”
Let me know your thoughts.
As always, stay healthy and safe vertical flying,
An MQ-4C is shown after its arrival in Guam (U.S. Navy Photo)
The United States Navy fiscal 2021 budget requests an increase for the development of the Integrated Functional Capability-4 (IFC-4) signals intelligence (SIGINT) package aboard the service’s Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton reconnaissance drone.
The budget request defers planned procurement of two of the high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) drones for two years until fiscal 2023 to allow for the maturation of IFC-4.
“What we see in the budget request is the pause in production with the intent of putting resources toward R&D on [a] new sensor,” Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Warden said in response to an analyst’s question during an Apr. 29 call on the company’s first quarter earnings.
“And we had anticipated that so it will be somewhat of an offset to the production pause,” she said, adding that “we continue to work with Congress as they deliberate on the budget to determine if we can get those two aircraft added back.”
“We do see that it is not just a production pause,” Warden said. “This is the continued commitment to the program and investment in additional sensors to make the program and the platform more robust.”
In an email response to questions from Avionics International, Northrop Grumman wrote that IFC-4 “will provide Triton with a robust signals intelligence capability.”
“The baseline aircraft payload plus the new modifications allow for Triton to operate as a multi-intelligence platform, and enables the retirement of the aging [Lockheed Martin] EP-3E fleet,” according to Northrop Grumman.
The proposed Navy increase for IFC-4 in fiscal 2021 appears to be part of the service’s $27 million request for United States Marine Corps Future Naval Capabilities (FMC), including Enhanced Lethality for Maritime Operations (ELMO). That effort includes a Marine Corps Advanced Technology Demonstration that will “initiate development of new Multi-Function Sensor (MFAS) modes for the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), enhancing Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) with the Next Generation Network (NGN),” according to Navy fiscal 2021 budget documents.
The Navy Triton program under PMA-262 at Patuxent River, Md. did not respond when questioned on the exact amount of the requested increase for IFC-4 in the fiscal 2021 budget.
In late January, two MQ-4C Tritons, representing an early operational capability for the UAV, arrived in Guam to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions to complement the Boeing P-8A Poseidon.
Northrop Grumman said that it has been trying to reduce costs on the Triton program. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report last May found that projected Triton development costs had increased 61 percent from $3.5 billion in 2009 to nearly $5.7 billion in October, 2018.
“The original requirements for the MQ-4C Triton did not include the multi-intelligence capability, which was added as a requirement in 2016 to enable the retirement of the EP-3E,” Northrop Grumman wrote in its email to Avionics when asked about the development cost increases. “Our partnership with the Navy has been critical in defining requirements throughout the evolution of the Triton program, and Northrop Grumman has taken a number of steps to drive down program costs. This includes a building a new high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) production site at our Palmdale [Calif.] facility, where we have implemented lean manufacturing processes to create efficiencies.”
In June last year, Iran shot down an older model Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator (BAMS-D), a prototype for the MQ-4C. The Navy bought five BAMS-Ds from the U.S. Air Force as a demonstrator platform before moving to the Triton.
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During their first quarter 2020 earnings call, Boeing’s chief executive provided updates on their work to return the 737 MAX to passenger-carrying service. At present, Boeing is awaiting software validation for the MAX’s flight control computer, separate from the aircraft’s MCAS system, which manages the aircraft’s angle of attack (AOA) sensors, pictured here. Photo: Boeing
A certification flight required to clear the grounding on the 737 MAX is awaiting software validation, with Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun anticipating a third quarter return to service, according to the company’s Apr. 29 first quarter earnings call.
The certification flight awaits software validation for the 737 MAX flight control computer (FCC). Calhoun gave no timeline on when the software validation effort would be complete.
“Right now we’re focused on completing the software validation and required technical documentation that will precede a certification flight, some of the documentation work has taken longer than we expected,” Calhoun said. “And the coronavirus situation has also required some changes to how we do things, including working remotely and virtual meetings with our regulators.”
A representative for Boeing provided an emailed statement to Avionics explaining the software issues that the 737 MAX program has been working through in recent months. According to the representative, the software validation effort focuses on a modification that was made to the flight control computer that is not associated with the MAX’s highly scrutinized Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).
The two features in focus include the computer’s microprocessor and autopilot engagement.
“The first issue involves hypothetical faults in the FCC microprocessor, which, in theory, could potentially lead to a runaway stabilizer. While these particular faults have never been observed in flight, the software modification will eliminate the possibility of those faults occurring. The second issue with the FCC could potentially lead to disengagement of the autopilot feature during final approach. While this has also never been observed in flight, and flight deck alerts and warnings are already in place to alert the crew if it did, the software update will prevent this fault from occurring,” the representative said.
Both issues were recently identified by Boeing and solutions are being incorporated at the same time.
The software associated with the 737 MAX flight control system has been an issue for the program’s return to service since at least November, when an article published by Reuters featured a statement from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) seeking a revision to the software documentation.
Boeing’s 737 MAX 8, the aircraft type used for Ethiopian Airlines flight ET 302, features an enhanced digital flight control system with software that manages functionality of MCAS, emergency descent in autopilot and flight level change mode, spoiler control electronics interface and autopilot roll command alerting system according to the interim report published by Ethiopia’s Ministry of Transport last month. The software version featured on the ET 302 MAX featured an MCAS flight control law that will command stabilizer nose down trim if it receives an AOA condition value that exceeds the threshold at which the computer senses the airplane approaching a stall condition.
An overview of the digital flight control system featured on the MAX. Photo: Ethiopia Ministry of Transport
“Validation is the process of ensuring that the requirements are sufficiently correct and complete,” investigators said in the interim report. “Verification is the process of ensuring that the final product meets the design requirements. Verification activities may include analysis and testing the individual item of equipment (e.g. flight control computer software) and then progressively integrating the equipment into a complete system and even flight testing for verification of a fully integrated system on the aircraft.”
Changes Boeing has made to the MCAS functionality include a new dual sensor feed that will compare data from both AOA vanes, instead of relying on one. Under the new update, the system will only activate a single time and will never provide more input than a pilot can counteract using the control column alone.
Calhoun further clarified any existence of a software glitch associated with the MAX flight control computer – separate from the MCAS system – during an interview on CNBC prior to the earnings call.
“There is a mountain of documentation that has to be completed,” he said. “Sometimes, the documentation work is confused with what is referred to as a software glitch. We have not had software glitches in the performance of our airplane at all on our test flights or otherwise. So, we are going to complete the documentation.”
On the earnings call, Boeing Chief Financial Officer Greg Smith also confirmed that the 737 MAX has completed more than 1,000 flights over the last year. The temporary suspension of 737 MAX production implemented by Boeing in January remains in place for now, with Smith noting it could be lifted and a lower production rate re-opened within the next few months.
“We’ve assumed that we will begin 737 MAX aircraft production at low rates during the second quarter of 2020, as timing and conditions of return to service and COVID-19 impacts are better understood,” Smith said. “We expect to gradually increase the production rate to 31 during 2021 and expect further gradual increases to correspond with market demand.”
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