Bell Nexus Lindsay Bjerregaard/Aviation Week

Opinion: Are Communication Networks Ready For eVTOL?

Air-taxi operations will require each eVTOL vehicle to stream live telemetry data to central operations centers for human oversight.

Printed headline: Data Overload

Numerous articles have graced the pages of Aviation Week in recent years discussing the amount of data generated by the latest generation of digital aircraft systems.

Given predictions by the Boston Consulting Group that we could see 1 billion air-taxi flights by 2030, it’s safe to say the aviation industry is facing another wave of data overload.

When data volume is the topic, people tend to think about storage and analysis, but it is communications networks that will require the most development work.

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Peter White

In 2017 and 2019, Capgemini conducted an MRO technical survey that verified MRO data generation is accelerating, and organizations admit they lack the resources to keep up. In 2017, 73% of airline and MRO leaders agreed data volume, velocity, variety and veracity exceed most operators’ ability to effectively drive business value. That number has improved only slightly, with 67% agreeing recently that data demands are exceeding operator capacity.

Where the predictions might be off by a few petabytes is in drones or unmanned aerial vehicles, and more specifically, in the air-taxi business. One recent study published in Porsche Consulting magazine predicts that, “By 2035, around 15,000 air taxis will be flying well-developed networks of routes above many cities.” Deloitte estimates passenger drones could become a reality as early as 2025.

Many traditional and new start-up manufacturers are investing heavily to make air taxis a reality, using large drone electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) aircraft. The Vertical Flight Society stated that more than 100 eVTOL aircraft are in concept, in development or flight-testing. Not all will be for air-taxi use, as cargo eVTOL will likely be the fastest way to achieve certification of unmanned vehicles.

Still, Morgan Stanley expects the air-taxi market to be worth $1.5 trillion worldwide by 2040, with passenger traffic comprising $851 billion of that. This probability reinforces the necessity of employing digital-twin analysis for safety management, insurance risk mitigation and passenger peace of mind. Air-taxi operations will require each eVTOL to stream live telemetry data to central operations centers for human oversight, although it is expected that artificial intelligence (AI) technology will have improved significantly, making both the vehicle and ground operations more autonomous in managing air-taxi flight challenges and mechanical issues.

Today, digital commercial aircraft generate petabytes of data every flight. This data is not consumed in real-time but rather in snapshots, due to the cost of data transmission. This means most aircraft data is used for post-event analysis, not real-time assessment.

The ability to consume large quantities of flight- and aircraft-system health data in real-time will become imperative to driving innovation and perfecting digital twins. The biggest challenge is collecting the data securely and dependably. Solving this will rely on two developments.

The first is the use of satellite communications. With the explosive growth of higher-bandwidth satellite networks, using micro-satellite technology, satellite communications will become more cost-effective and reliable and feature higher bandwidth for greater data transmission.

The second is the emergence of 5G. With air taxis flying at low altitudes, it is conceivable that 5G cellular networks designed for data collection will become the least expensive and primary means of communications.

After factoring in cost, satellite communications could become the automatic backup for data transmission loss over 5G networks or in remote locations. The other areas of data management that are already designed for big-data challenges will continue to evolve and become even more attuned to the needs of AI analytic engines.

Recent 5G research by Capgemini shows that two of the top five industry segments interested in implementing 5G technology for operations are aerospace and defense and airports, ports and rail operations. Many features of 5G will be essential to air-taxi enablement—high security, high reliability and the accommodation of large numbers of assets (about 1 million per km2). With the long regulatory cycle ahead for eVTOL vehicles, the telecom industry has the chance to roll out 5G and work out some of the bugs in time to support autonomous vehicles.

That means air-taxi operators and their financial backers will have to invest up-front in communications and AI technology to ensure that, operationally, these unmanned vehicles can be continuously monitored from startup to shutdown. The eVTOL manufacturers will have to ensure that systems have the capacity to support streaming data needs for full-time monitoring of the vehicles as digital twins. Without having a digital twin of each air taxi monitoring daily operations, can air-taxi operators confidently operate in a high-density urban environment?

In the end, it will be the regulatory authorities and the passengers who decide whether unmanned air taxis can coexist with manned vehicles in dense urban environments. The best we can do is ensure the communications technologies are ready to handle the data load these advances will demand.

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