Autonomy & AI

What Can eVTOLs Learn from Autonomous Cars?

By Kelsey Reichmann | March 8, 2021
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The Chaparral’s first autonomous flight. (Elroy Air)

More electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft companies are moving closer to certification and deployment and experts in the industry are looking to autonomous cars to predict the future of this emerging technology. During a March 2 Revolution.Aero town hall, industry experts discussed what lessons eVTOLs can learn from autonomous cars and how their roll-out might be different. 

One shared aspect between the development of autonomous vehicles and eVTOLs is their predicted development timelines. Autonomous vehicle companies often made early predictions that their vehicles would be driving in the next three years, Patrick McGee, San Francisco correspondent for the Financial Times, said. eVTOL companies, like Joby Aviation, are making similar predictions about two to three-year timelines until they will be commercially available. 

“Anyone who’s covered the autonomous vehicle industry is completely jaded by three-year timelines because I would have said the same thing about the Google team that became Waymo,” McGee said. “They basically founded the whole modern self-driving movement in 2009. [They had] lots of experience, they already had a prototype that you could drive around in, and they had someone like John Krafcik come in from Hyundai and say, look we bought a working prototype now we’re going to scale. We’ll get 10s of 1,000s of units in a few years. Basically, everybody thought it was plausible. It hasn’t happened at all.” 

Waymo is testing the use of its self-driving technology on different types of ground vehicles.

The timeline for fully autonomous vehicles may also not be as soon as predicted. The timeline will be around 20 years not three, Kirsten Bartok, managing partner at AirFinance, said. 

“You have to understand that this is a long time horizon,” Bartok said. “Everyone talks about autonomy, VTOLs, or drone delivery to be there in one, two, or three years. We can’t look at it like that. It’s a progression of the step function. So I think about the next 20 years as when autonomy is really going to come in. We’re obviously going to see it earlier on the drone side.” 

Bartok explained the step function as a natural and gradual progression of removing jobs from the pilot. It starts with tasks like pilot assist and moves on to harder and more complex tasks. 

Some eVTOL companies will start with a pilot onboard, however, others like Elroy Air will be autonomous from the start. Despite the challenges of a pilotless aircraft, David Merril, co-founder and CEO of Elroy Air, said he chose to go in this direction because the aircraft was designed for cargo operations versus air taxi operations. 

“The kind of missions that a passenger system needs to run, I call them the double black diamond safety case because you have not only people on board the aircraft, most precious cargo but in order to build a business for air taxi, it’s got to be flying over a densely populated urban metro to get people across town and to get people from the exurbs into downtown,” Merril said. “Whereas we’ve got a system of a similar scale but nobody’s onboard, and the kind of routes that we can set up for aiding this middle mile segment of logistics can be much lower risk. They can be in rural places at first expanding that footprint of express logistics out to a lot of spots where big commercial shippers just couldn’t do express today.”

Elroy is designing an autonomous system for its aircraft which will first operate with a remote pilot due to regulatory permission, Merril said. 

“We’re designing the Chaparral system for autonomy from start to finish, but recognizing that in some operational situations, there will need to be a pilot and mostly this will come down to, regulatory permissions,” Merril said. “We believe we’ll start needing, at least a remote pilot, who is a pilot in command. And so giving that remote pilot situational awareness and the ability to talk to ATC is going to be important.” 

Through Project Wayfinder Airbus is exploring autonomous flight development by looking a perception decision making and developing algorithms, Arne Stoschek, project executive at Wayfinder, said. 

The cockpit of a Project Wayfinder aircraft being used for autonomous aircraft systems research and development flights. (Project Wayfinder)

“With Project Wayfinder, we are focusing on a few topics such as perception decision making,” Stoschek said. “So, how can you basically create intelligence in an aircraft to react to unforeseen events? And then also, how do we ensure that the systems safe? A big part of that is the number one cause algorithm development, and number two getting the necessary data to develop those systems both training algorithms, but also to the validation and verification of those algorithms.”

The different environments in which self-driving cars and autonomous aircraft operate will also affect how these two emerging technologies are integrated, Merril said.

“I think the hard part about self-driving cars is that it’s a very crowded environment with other cars and pedestrians everywhere and a lot of ambiguity,” Merril said. “So there’s a lot of edge cases that autonomous cars need to be able to handle gracefully that go beyond the kind of complexity that you’d find in the air in the kind of constrained structured environment.” 

Autonomous ground vehicles have run into a lot of technical issues that have held them back, McGee said. Where eVTOLs differ is that they have already demonstrated some of the advanced technology with drones. 

“The future for autonomy on the road I can be quite cynical about, I must say,” McGee said. “In the air, I’m much more optimistic, but I think the problem is less about technology. I think unmanned drones have already demonstrated technology. It’s more public optics.” 

The addition of eVTOL and drones flying at a large scale is not a publicly accepted proposition yet. While people in the industry are working on corridors and other plans for managing the airspace, for a layperson, it sounds chaotic to possibly have hundreds of vehicles suddenly flying above them, McGee said. 

“I think from the ground for the layperson it still may look like utter chaos and I don’t know how willing regulators are going to be to have that system in every city across America,” McGee said.

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