Air Taxi, ATM Modernization

NASA Collaboration Sets Out to Define the Future of Air Travel

NASA’s “Sky for All” effort invites collaboration from stakeholders to develop a vision for the future of aviation. Pictured is an illustration of an advanced subsonic aircraft with an Electrified Aircraft Propulsion system. (Photo: NASA)

NASA is now seeking input from various stakeholders in the aviation community to establish a definition for the future of air travel. NASA aims to collaborate in defining what urban air mobility and other types of air travel will look like in 2050—and beyond—in this shared vision, called “Sky for All.” NASA’s Shawn Engelland, the “Sky for All” lead, and Kurt Swieringa, deputy manager for technology of the Air Traffic Management – eXploration project, offered some insights on objectives for the “Sky for All” initiative in an interview with Avionics.

Engelland emphasized the importance of community input in assembling the “Sky for All” vision: “The team was given the mandate to develop a community-supported vision for the future aviation system circa 2045–2050; we were asked to not constrain that vision, and to think big in picturing that future aviation system.” From the beginning, he said, the team knew that significant community input would be necessary in order to encourage their continued support once this vision becomes reality. Engelland described their approach as co-development with the community, including all stakeholders, from those who fly to those that manufacture aircraft. “We’ve been deliberate in trying to structure the vision development efforts to get that community input throughout the process.” The NASA team put together an initial version of the vision based on their understanding of the direction of the aviation industry, incorporating input from previous efforts. Now, the focus is on producing iterations of the vision with community input. “We are getting some really good input from the community,” Engelland shared, “[but] we’re pretty early in the process so we don’t have specific investment strategies to point to.” 

Kurt Swieringa added, “The benefit of this community co-development vision is that it helps us define what that end state looks like at the middle of next century, and it allows us to go through the process of connecting the dots from where we are today to what we need to do to get to that future vision.”

The “Sky for All” vision will incorporate ideas from numerous stakeholders into what future aircraft will look like and what operations they will perform. (Photo: NASA Illustration)

One of the things driving the collaboration to develop a “Sky for All” vision is the expectation that in the future, air traffic will increase in both volume and diversity of applications, and there will be increasing diversity of vehicle types. Engelland explained, “If you think of the increasing complexity and diversity of operations, we think it’s going to be really important to have safety thoroughly embedded into the system from the outside,” and that will likely require innovative approaches to integrating safety. The team at NASA also envisions automation playing a bigger role in the future. “The increase in volume, and increase in diversity and complexity kind of demands automation. But automation needs to be applied intelligently and in a way that maintains safety,” he said.

Considering the systems and interactions between components in looking towards the future will be incredibly important, commented Swieringa. “I think what we’re going to see in the future aviation system is much more effective communication of digital data, and the ability to use that data to make decisions that improve the efficiency of operations, such as reducing fuel use and increasing sustainability, but also enabling increased density.” 

Once the vision for the future of aviation is defined, some of NASA’s objectives are to identify barriers to achieving that vision, to develop the research questions that will need to be answered, and determine what new capabilities must be created, while keeping safety a top priority. Engelland stated that the transition to fully digital information sharing, and designing a “system of systems” with ubiquitous data sharing, is a key area of capability that needs to be determined. 

Swieringa added, “We’re really looking at how these technologies can be brought together and progress to enable a series of use cases.” This includes things like air taxi services as well as publicly beneficial use cases such as firefighting, emergency evacuation, and medical transportation.

The “Sky for All” initiative was created to bring together the numerous research initiatives already taking place and to develop an understanding of the aviation system that exists in the mid-century future. The NASA team is working in coordination with their colleagues at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), who have been pursuing an initiative called “Charting Aviation’s Future: Operations in an Info-Centric National Airspace System (NAS).” This effort focuses specifically on the future of air travel up until the year 2035, in comparison to NASA’s focus on the mid-century timeframe. Shawn Engelland mentioned that NASA and the FAA are in frequent communication to ensure that there is alignment between what the two organizations are envisioning for the future.

NASA first held a soft launch for the “Sky for All” effort in December of 2021 in which they sought input from about 200 stakeholders. Those invited to this initial round of collaboration included traditional flight operators, developers of new aircraft, and manufacturers, including vehicle manufacturers and providers of system solutions like air traffic management systems. The purpose of seeking input in the initial round, according to Kurt Swieringa, was that “we wanted to make sure we tested our processes for receiving data, synthesizing it, and incorporating it into the ‘Sky for All’ vision before we opened it up to a broad audience.” With the recent announcement from NASA, said Engelland, “we’re now welcoming input from anyone who has thoughts to share about the future aviation system.”

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