NASA asks for help on plan for managing urban flights

NASA has awarded an $800,000 contract to Deloitte to come up with a plan for or other destinations in metropolitan areas.

The New York-based firm has until late February 2020 to deliver its “Concept of Operations for Urban Air Mobility.” NASA awarded the contract in March and it was announced yesterday by Deloitte.

The company will focus mainly on the nearer term goal of permitting hundreds of urban mobility aircraft to be airborne simultaneously, while keeping in mind the industry’s desired “extensibility” to thousands of flights. NASA includes cargo flights in its definition of urban air mobility, but Deloitte’s main concern will be passenger travel.

The contract is part of a broader campaign by NASA and the FAA to seek input from the aviation industry and nurture the urban air mobility market without compromising safety. The new vehicles can’t enter the national airspace until new regulations are approved, infrastructure is in place and technologies like collision avoidance are declared reliable. These vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft would need to cross metropolitan areas and share the skies with conventional airplanes, delivery drones, rockets on their way to and from space, and supersonic jets.

With so many new classes of aircraft in the skies or on drawing boards, “NASA is asking what all of this change means to mobility and how things should operate in the airspace system to safely accommodate new air vehicles,” said Chris Metts, a Deloitte Consulting aviation and transportation specialist. “We have to be open to how technologies and how the airspace system may evolve.”

Companies around the world are developing and testing electric and hybrid vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft that would feed the emerging market. Some concepts call for having pilots onboard, while other companies propose controlling the aircraft remotely from the ground or programing them to fly autonomously.

“As these vehicles get more and more advanced and more and more cost-effective, we’re going to see numbers of them increase,” said Matt Metcalfe, a Deloitte Consulting managing director who leads the firm’s future of aviation and urban air mobility work.

NASA has established a series of levels from 1 to 6 to describe how the market is likely to progress in the years and decades ahead. Under the contract, Deloitte must suggest how the U.S. airspace system should operate during Urban Mobility Level-4, when hundreds of piloted urban mobility aircraft are flying simultaneously in metropolitan areas. This would be a step toward Level 6, when tens of thousands of automated aircraft would simultaneously be airborne.

Based on the history of aviation, Metcalf estimates that Urban Mobility Level-6 might be 30 years away. Urban Mobility Level-4 could be reached years earlier, because in most aircraft, pilots would be aboard. Metcalf predicts that frequently traveled routes are likely to be the first to shift to automation. As an example, he cites the difficult 60-kilometer ground commute from downtown Washington, D.C., to Baltimore Washington International Airport.

Part of Deloitte’s challenge will be to identify areas of flexibility, in which those in charge of airspace operations would readily welcome new types of aircraft, as opposed to subjects like safety, where targets either will remain constant or improve, Metts said.


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NASA asks for help on plan for managing urban flights