Aircraft Technology, Integration and Operations

Adapting air traffic control for drones and urban air mobility

The Air Transportation Systems Technical Committee fosters improvements to transport systems and studies the impacts of new aerospace technologies.

Global airline industry profits are projected to dip from $30 billion in 2018 to $28 billion in 2019 because of a projected 14.3% increase in fuel costs and a 5.3% increase in labor costs, according to the International Air Transport Association. The return on invested capital of 7.4% is projected to be only 0.1 percentage points above the cost of capital. In North America, a net post-tax profit of $15 billion is expected in 2018, with a net post-tax profit margin of 5.5%. The relatively strong economic performance in North America is attributed to the consolidation of commercial airlines, which has helped maintain high passenger and cargo loads, and increased ancillary revenues that have blunted the impact of higher fuel costs.

NASA, the FAA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and industry have been developing concepts and technologies to improve the handling of arrival, departure and airport surface traffic. In July, NASA expanded operational testing for its integrated arrival, departure and surface, or IADS, program to the North Texas area. NASA’s Airspace Technology Demonstration 2 project developed IADS to save fuel and emissions, reduce congestion on taxiways, and improve compliance with controlled takeoff times for managing overhead stream insertion. IADS has been tested at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina since September 2017 and, in two years, saved airlines 1.4 million kilograms (3.1 million pounds) of fuel and reduced carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to planting 71,031 urban trees.

Government agencies opened doors to development of new types of aircraft and operations. The FAA took steps toward establishing standards for the return of civil supersonic flight in the U.S. In June, it proposed streamlining the process for obtaining approval to flight test supersonic aircraft. The FAA expects to publish a proposed rule for noise certification of supersonic aircraft by March 2020. Besides noise, supersonic operations will also need to demonstrate safe integration into the National Airspace System with existing and other emergent air traffic operations.

Beyond airline operations, NASA and its partners made progress toward building a framework for safe, routine operation of small unmanned aircraft systems in the airspace. In June, NASA, the FAA, the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems and 18 industry partners completed Technical Capability Level 4 flight tests in Reno, Nevada. It consisted of five sUAS completing 150 missions in downtown Reno and a nearby park. This testing was the first of its kind with multiple sUAS simultaneously flying beyond visual-line-of-sight operations in an urban environment. In August, Technical Capability Level 4 testing continued in Corpus Christi, Texas, to gather operational data in a hot and humid urban environment and over open waters.

The UAS Technical Capability Level 4 flight tests have also become important to development of UAM, short for urban air mobility, which industry, academia and government are increasingly pursuing. In October, NASA said recent work had focused on extending the UTM tests for sUAS to UAM operations. Also in October, NASA released details of how industry could apply to test and demonstrate technology in partnership with the agency through a series of UAM Grand Challenge activities, with the first event expected to occur in mid- to late 2020. In these activities, NASA provides the proving ground to facilitate the UAM community in testing and demonstrating their technologies and other capabilities that address foundational UAM safety and integration barriers. The UAM community will need to work together with the broader aviation community to demonstrate that UAM vehicles can be operated safely with regard to other vehicles in the air and people and property on the ground.

Adapting air traffic control for drones and urban air mobility