Honeywell creates lab to simulate urban flights
By Cat Hofacker|September 3, 2020
Urban air mobility pilots can practice for in-flight emergencies
One future vision of urban air mobility resembles something out of a “Star Wars” movie: hundreds of passenger air taxis ferrying commuters across the skies alongside package delivery drones and other cargo vehicles, reducing the amount of traffic on the ground. At least initially, pilots will have to be aboard to steer these small rotorcraft, and they must be prepared to land them under less-than-ideal conditions while keeping passengers safe.
Enter Honeywell Aerospace, which yesterday announced the creation of an avionics laboratory in Phoenix for simulating flights of these aircraft and various in-flight emergencies. Designed to resemble the flight deck of a conceptual air taxi, the lab is equipped with a Honeywell flight computer and controls similar to those that pilots would handle to steer these future aircraft over urban areas.
In an interview, a Honeywell executive likened the lab to the desktop simulators on which airline pilots practice scenarios considered too dangerous to attempt during real-world flight tests.
“It will enable pilots to be able to get used to how the vehicle performs in a much safer environment,” said Hector Garcia, chief technology officer of the UAS/UAM unit of Honeywell Aerospace. Formed in late March, the unit will design and build software and hardware for passenger air taxis and package delivery drones, including fly-by-wire flight computers and navigation sensors.
Simulations in the Phoenix lab begin with Honeywell employees uploading one of several prescribed routes into the flight computer. The route can also be viewed on a small flight display screen in front of the pilot’s seat, while three wrap-around screens in the lab show the outside environment of that particular simulation. In one flight path, for instance, the air taxi flies over a bustling city, the view on the screen changing as the pilot steers the rotorcraft via a joystick and throttle controls. Depending on the scenario, other computers in the lab are programmed to buffet the air taxi with gusts of wind throughout the flight or simulate emergencies including a lost propeller.
Pilots can complete flights in either a first-person view or choose a third-person display, in which a rendering of the air taxi appears on the screen. This way, Garcia said, operators can see the vehicle’s movements and responses to different conditions. Honeywell employees can also swap out the generic flight controls in the lab for those of specific aircraft.
“So it’s no longer a software exercise, it’s a true exercise and it will give you the perspectives of that vehicle,” he said.
In the future, Garcia said he envisions labs such as Honeywell’s becoming part of the required training for air taxi pilots, similar to the simulator training airline pilots must complete. In the shorter term, he hopes that pairing the data from simulations with those from real-world flight tests will speed up certification for these air taxi designs and clear them to carry passengers.
“When you compare the two datasets and you see that they are pretty much the same, that provides the confidence to the FAA or certain authority to say your models are accurate,” he said, “and we are now acknowledging that through simulation you’ve been able to exercise these emergency conditions and we trust the data, and we will be able to certify the aircraft.”