By Paul Brinkmann|June 2022
Parimal Kopardekar, director of NASA Aeronautics Research Institute
Futuristic aircraft tend to present unprecedented management challenges. When that happens, NASA’s go-to expert is Parimal Kopardekar, better known as PK. After leading development with FAA of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management system for drones, a digital-license-plate concept now in field testing, he’s moved over to advanced air mobility. As director of the NASA Aeronautics Research Institute, he leads a team of engineers and industry working groups who are devising standards for safety and noise for this coming breed of aircraft, while searching for solutions to supply chain issues that threaten to slow down introduction of the aircraft in the United States. I reached him by phone to discuss the emergence of the air taxi industry and how the nation will manage its growth. Here is our conversation, compressed and lightly edited.
Q: Air taxis have been a popular science fiction topic for decades, and you are now at the forefront of work to make them a reality. Do you really believe we will have these services in cities soon, or is this all just a pipe dream?
A: Yes, I believe in the scalability and ability for advanced air mobility to transform our society. We don’t all have to commute to big cities. Offices, workplaces and residences can be geographically distributed and don’t need to be confined to only road access. We need to work hard to enable the scalability of airspace, supply chain and community acceptance. The best way to summarize it is that our ability to scale will depend on how fast we can address airspace, vertiports, supply chain, maintenance and charging infrastructure, and community acceptance. I am upbeat; it just depends on how fast we can address all these items.
Q. How far away are we from having operational air taxi service?
A: It’s sort of unfair for me to give you one date because that’s probably going to be wrong [laughs]. If I did that, you’re not going to look good, and I’m not looking good. The way I think about it is “What are the things that need to be in place to be able to have initial operation, beyond just a onesie, twosie couple of flights here and there?” Because this will all happen gradually in stages. Let’s say you’re talking about Orlando and Miami and you have 100 flights a day — that’s sustained operations. But then we talk about everywhere, which is pervasive operations, really realizing the true value of advanced air mobility — not just in the urban airspace, but also locations that are hard to reach. That’s the true value of AAM, to be able to support rural firefighting, or for medical delivery in rural areas, or cargo into areas that are hard to reach.
Q: How else do you think AAM can benefit society?
A: Businesses and homes can be much more spread out. Communities can be integrated with green space; they don’t all have to go through congested roads all the time in the same direction all the time. There’s one example in Washington where a hotel had to change its location, even though the location was really great for travelers. But people who wanted to work there, they had to take three modes of transportation — metro and bus and taxi or Uber — so they couldn’t find people to work there. That problem would not happen if we are able to travel through air. If we can realize that, it could have a transformative effect on the way people live and work.
Q: Have you seen any examples of such potential to transform lives?
A: NASA has supported a couple of projects that really opened my eyes to the benefits of advanced mobility. We did a project for our student interns during covid shutdowns. Restaurants were closed and farmers were throwing away food. We connected the farmers with food banks in California and got 20 volunteer pilots. We loaded the [general aviation] aircraft and landed them as close as possible to the food banks to deliver the food. And we repeated that experiment last Christmas with the Zuni tribe in New Mexico, delivering food and water. That is the true power of advanced mobility, urban mobility — not just to reduce transportation and commute times. We really want to see advanced air mobility transform society.
Q: What is the current maturity level of AAM preparations?
A: We have a system to gauge where we are in terms of preparations, which we call Urban Air Mobility Maturity Level or UML. We are still in the initial stage on that scale, which is exploration and demonstrations in limited environments. We need to make sure that aircraft, aerospace, infrastructure and communities all are going to be ready when the air taxis are ready. It doesn’t do us any good if the vehicles are ready, but we don’t know operational procedures or airspace or we don’t know how the communities will react. A good example is the Segway. Segway was introduced, but communities were not sure if they wanted it because it could be a safety hazard. And then you have bike-sharing and scooters just showing up one night in some places where people objected. That’s not a good way to introduce something, and aviation doesn’t work like that. We want to make sure that the system as a whole is ready: the airspace integration and infrastructure and community.
Q: What will NASA’s AAM research focus on over the next few years?
A: We are putting the focus on where the gaps and the research needs are for the community. We are especially focused on working with original equipment manufacturers, in terms of how do you enable them to ensure safety while also helping them scale up production. We are also looking at a method to ensure the safety of operations for certain contingencies, for example, operating in an area where GPS is not reliable. Sometimes the comm links could fail, things like that. We are taking a three-prong approach. The first is working groups. We have one focused on safety, one on community acceptance, one on airspace and one on the aircraft. The working groups are public, and they provide firsthand information not just about NASA, but also the communities of interest and how we are collaborating with all stakeholders. Second, we have active research teams inside NASA researching noise levels, airspace, aircraft safety and high-density vertiport operations. Finally, later this year, we will have the National Campaign, when we will do more testing with Wisk Aero and other companies, and we’ll announce more details on that soon. The tests we’ve done already with Joby Aviation on noise levels, the data is being analyzed and we expect papers to be published on that this summer. There will be more collaboration opportunities through a very open process. We are also collaborating with FAA and Department of Defense. With FAA, we have a research transition team to ensure that the learnings through our simulations, the research and flight tests can be shared with them so that their concept of operations can incorporate the things that we learned together.
Q: So there will be very limited markets, cities where this will happen first, or will it start first in rural areas?
A: I don’t think we have thought through whether we will require that or whether that will be organically happening between the industry players and certain cities. Our role is more on the manufacturers’ side and making sure this can all work with FAA, making sure that it can be integrated into the airspace — to allow operations to scale up without overloading their traffic controllers, for example. And currently the supply chain is not ready to support large-scale operations. In terms of cities considering AAM operations, our role might be that we will say, “Here are the requirements,” and then cities and states can figure out how to adapt it to their preferences, because it’s up to them really to approve the landing and takeoff locations, the vertiports.
Q: Why is the supply chain such a big challenge?
A: If you look at the history of aerospace, there have been many instances of supply chain issues causing disruption. When small drones got popular, we didn’t have a good supply chain and we had to depend on some other countries. There have been shortages of microprocessors, APUs — application processing units — ball bearings, casings and castings. The Eclipse Aviation aircraft company failed in 2009 partially because they didn’t have a good supply chain. We see a lot of gaps in the AAM supply chain — for fuel cells, also magnets, ball bearings. So we need to build capacity so that we can actually make these vehicles. We are building the bridge between the needs, the suppliers and the folks who need that. If we want to see a day when there are 10,000 eVTOLs, 6 million drones, what are the supply chain capacities we need? Are we dependent exclusively on cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo? Maybe we are going to run out of cobalt, so can we change to different materials? We need to be much more proactive than reactive.
Q: What other growing pains do you anticipate for the industry?
A: These vehicles will operate at local and regional levels. So unlike the larger aircraft that go to big airports regularly for maintenance, eVTOLs will require spare parts and maintenance technicians wherever they are. It will be more like taking your car to a local repair shop. The whole system needs to be built for these vehicles to be able to sustain these operations.
Q: What is NASA doing to boost the supply chain?
A: We set up an electronic exchange platform to connect the equipment manufacturers with would-be suppliers. In many cases, we see AAM companies who cannot go to the larger manufacturers because they say we only need three parts at this point. That is a very fulfilling mission for me personally, because if you can bring more companies into aviation, aeronautics, that’s great. For example, I have car companies coming to me and asking about the industry and how they can get involved. Can they make batteries, can they make composites, and so on. We connect people who can hopefully help each other.
Q: You’ve been involved in so much during your career. How does tackling advanced air mobility rank in terms of your experiences over the years?
A: I think my absolute favorite project was developing the UTM, Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management, which sort of changed the paradigm. I was fortunate to get a patent on it and the UTM is going to many, many countries, so I feel very fortunate about that particular idea. It was the main pivotal moment in my career because it was totally new and there was a resistance, and we went through the resistance. It’s everywhere now and it’s cascading into other altitudes, higher altitudes, 50,000 feet and up. It’s even being considered for space traffic management. AAM is more complicated in the sense there’s people on board and it’s larger aircraft than drones. But I struggled with UTM for quite some time, and still, my work is not done.