Urban air safety and societal requirements

 By Gary Cutts, Challenge Director, Future Flight, UK Research and Innovation

The UK has been at the forefront of aviation for more than 100 years. Now, the Future Flight Challenge aims to lead a new revolution in the UK aviation industry by bringing together technologies in electrification, digital and autonomy to create new, greener modes of air travel and capability. The Future Flight challenge, delivered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), provides opportunities for aviation businesses across the UK to fund technology research and development to build, use and export new aviation concepts and services that will appeal to foreign markets.

It is taking a system of systems approach to the wider aviation ecosystem co-ordinating the integration of infrastructure, air traffic systems, operating models and safety developments to allow large-scale demonstrations of real world use cases. The Challenge is new – the first funded competition winners will be announced this autumn – and it is reflective of the UK’s ambition to deliver a tangible and meaningful air mobility and drone demonstrations as more than just a futuristic image in a sci-fi movie. The challenge fund is UK300 million with UK125 million from the government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the remainder from industry. The funding is granted through three phases of activity. The first phase was aimed at discovery; developing an understanding of the field and building a community. We are now in phase two, developing the relevant technologies with a large number of smaller projects across the aviation spectrum. Phase three will have fewer, larger consortia as the projects converge for their demonstrations.

Impact of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has not just introduced temporary changes to society but has accelerated perhaps permanent shifts that need to be identified and understood. Some of these present opportunities as well as challenges for a new aviation system. Many people have embraced working from home and there is now less need to commute each day with some evidence that commuters are happy to move further from work. Home deliveries continue to rise inexorably, long distance leisure travel is being replaced by more local options and businesses are actively exploring how to provide services, such as inspection and maintenance remotely. These all represent a clear shift in transport demand to be matched with the pre-existing desire for more integrated, efficiency and sustainable transport solution. Along with other transport sectors, the Future Flight challenge is considering integrated traffic management and infrastructure development with future models in mind.

In terms of the industry response, the appetite for future flight development has increased despite the limitations the pandemic has thrown in the face of businesses. Whilst many of the biggest aviation companies are having to take stock and work through a huge period of uncertainty, we are experiencing a large demand to participate in the Future Flight Challenge. The recent open competition was significantly over-subscribed with good quality submissions across the full aviation spectrum including many projects directly focussed on better, future pandemic responses such as expediting the use of drones for our blue light services.

Looking forward

A paradigm shift in how the public will travel is predicted over the coming years which Urban Air mobility models will need to keep front of mind. A social science group is supporting the work of the Future Flight Challenge to ensure public acceptance is understood and ultimately granted; something pivotal to the uptake of real-life use cases. Further to this, an economic study supporting the challenge is in its final stages. This looks at the basic economics of a range of potential use cases showing the significant potential of drones and air mobility to have a positive impact. A summary will soon be published and aims to demonstrate the wider societal benefits of Future Flight. This study will inform future projects across the Future Flight Community, allowing those projects to understand the societal benefits and also the emerging challenges (such as noise and privacy) to keep social issues at the forefront of thinking as projects develop.

Our vision remains for the Future Flight challenge to demonstrate the system of systems in three vehicle classes by 2024. In ten years, we see a stronger commercial use of these vehicles and future gazing to 2050, the vision includes an integrated, sustainable transport system that will enable a full scale adoption of future flight vehicle classes into rural regions as well as dense cities and the provision of a wide range of aviation services.

Safety at the core

Earlier this year we commissioned research into an Aviation Safety Case. Feeling it necessary to support The Future Flight Challenge Team and the wider Future Flight Community as it develops an aviation system capable of safely operating novel models of air transportation including drones, urban and rural air mobility and sub-regional all electric aircraft. The cardinal requirement is to ensure that the overall system of systems must achieve at least the same levels of safety as the highly honed current airline aviation system. Today’s excellent system safety levels are achieved by highly developed process and learning and incremental improvement over many decades.

The world of drones and air mobility is moving at pace and many of the newer entrants in this space are looking to run at a pace nearer to tech companies than those of more traditional aerospace. Also, the vision in these new markets is to change many aspects of aviation from vehicle types to operation in dense urban environments to autonomous control. There is a critical need to collate the current understanding of the basis of the aviation safety system with the vision of Future Flight in order to identify key safety requirements and components for a new system. Without this structure, a new aviation system could be developed and qualified in isolation but find it impossible to scale safely for widespread use.

The UK has a strong aviation industry and a healthy group of new entrants in emerging technologies. The UK regulators, including the Civil Aviation Authority are world class and innovative and we have a history of leading the aviation industry with guidelines and standards that are taken on by the international stage. The future of flight is on a promising path; with the appetite for flight development stronger than ever, and support from an industry re-energised by the global pandemic, research and development continues at pace behind the scenes.