Creating a National R&D Plan for Aerospace Autonomy
By Dan Dumbacher|December 2021
The United States needs a national research and development (R&D) plan for autonomous capability for aerospace, according to a recommendation from the AIAA Autonomous Vehicles and Systems Task Force. Autonomy is certainly going to be part of America’s transportation and off-world future.
The benefits of autonomy will enhance safety for all Americans in the 21st century and enable capabilities we are only just imagining. Autonomy will drive new missions and capabilities otherwise unimagined, as well as improve performance and lower cost and/or risk for aerospace systems and their missions. In the “2021 AIAA State of the Industry Report” we released in September, more than 60% of industry professionals ranked autonomous aircraft as an emerging technology with more opportunities than challenges.
It is imperative that AIAA helps clear the way for American industry to flourish in the evolving aviation and space markets. The AIAA Autonomous Vehicles and Systems Task Force believes that AIAA should play a leading role in forming the national R&D plan. A first step in creating that national plan was made during a recent gathering of leaders from government, industry, and academia in Washington, DC, at the AIAA Aerospace Autonomy Summit. More than 80 thought leaders and industry influencers invested a day exchanging ideas and making plans together for autonomy in aerospace. The event was intentionally limited to autonomy in the aviation sector in order to ensure sufficient focus there. A future event will address autonomy in the space sector.
Congressman Garret Graves (R-LA), Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, delivered a spirited keynote address during the event. We also heard from Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA), the subcommittee’s chairman. The remarks from these influential lawmakers resonated with the attendees, and we learned that the House Subcommittee on Aviation will soon organize roundtable discussions on autonomy. AIAA hopes to be an active participant in those important conversations. Throughout the day senior officials from the Department of Defense, the FAA, and NASA also shared their critical voices in setting our national autonomy strategy and policy.
With the numerous experts gathered, the conversations were lively and productive. Several themes emerged—and re-emerged:
• Balance is needed between innovation and safety. Innovation in autonomy is vital—and safety must not be diminished as a core value in our community.
• We are developing a common understanding of trust. Trust, transparency, and clear explanations of autonomous systems and their behavior will be key to acceptance.
• Partnerships are key. Industry associations, manufacturers, and government stakeholders will need to partner and cooperate to advance aerospace autonomy and realize its promise. Adjacent industries such as automotive and IT provide valuable starting points.
• “Accommodation” will be followed by “integration” of autonomy. Incremental, intentional steps that add value—like safety, reliability, and economy—are vital for gaining acceptance of aerospace autonomy by industry, by government, and critically, by the public.
• We face a “people” challenge. Industry, academic, and government aerospace autonomy experts agree that changes are needed to prepare the aerospace workforce for increasing autonomy.
Our members are now planning their approach on engaging the aerospace autonomy challenge. The AIAA Intelligent Systems Technical Committee and the AIAA Guidance, Navigation, and Control Technical Committee were already committed to working with industry, government laboratories, and academia to develop a certification plan for unmanned aerial systems (UAS). They will present their plan at a special session during the 2023 AIAA SciTech Forum.
On behalf of our 30,000 professional and student members, and nearly 100 corporate members, AIAA will continue this proactive approach to autonomy. As we establish our new Domain approach at AIAA, autonomy is a vital part of the Aerospace R&D Domain. We are committed to convening our community on this topic and we will keep pushing for outcomes to maintain the momentum.
Working together in partnership with government policymakers, regulators, industry innovators, and academia we acknowledge that advancing aerospace autonomy will not be an easy task, yet it will be worthwhile, as we venture into what is arguably a new golden age of aerospace innovation and democratization.