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NASA Sets Table for Safe Air Taxi Flights

Editor’s Note: Edited to reflect published technical paper link.

Concept art for advanced air mobility vehicle.
An electric vertical take-off and landing vehicle flies in a designated lane along a regional route in this render of potential Advanced Air Mobility operations. NASA virtual tabletop discussions allow researchers and industry to conduct proactive problem-solving in areas like aircraft navigation, flexibility, and flight paths, which are necessary for these operations to safely integrate into the national airspace.
NASA/Kyle Jenkins

Tabletop exercises allow researchers to explore options and test scenarios in fields from military strategy and cybersecurity to disaster response planning. Now, NASA is using tabletop exercises to test how electric air taxis will fit safely into the national airspace – allowing passengers to one day hop across town or to a neighboring city by using new highways in the sky.

To successfully map out this new air transportation system, NASA partnered with industry, academia, and other government agencies in a series of 10 tabletop exercises led by the agency’s Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) National Campaign team. Conducted throughout 2022, these expert-led discussions examined potentially unforeseen technical, operational, and regulatory gaps and defined the best use of combined resources to address them. NASA’s AAM mission envisions a revolutionary new air transportation system, and the National Campaign team leads research on the autonomy, infrastructure, and airspace planning that will allow an AAM ecosystem to materialize.

“To test the AAM ecosystem functionally, we can only do bits and pieces at a time right now,” said National Campaign flight engineer Brad Snelling, who leads the project’s tabletop activities. “A big advantage of flight tabletops is we have the ability to think through a whole mission from a holistic standpoint and examine every piece that’s required to make it work. The answers arising from these exercises are what will allow these revolutionary new forms of transportation to operate in the real world.”

These tabletop exercises are unique, as they will bring together a vehicle developer, government researchers, and airspace service providers to address airspace automation concepts. Industry partners participating in these discussions include:

  • One vehicle developer: Wisk Aero based in Hollister, California
  • Five airspace service providers: Avision of Santa Monica, California; OneSky of Exton, Pennsylvania; SkyGrid of Austin, Texas; ANRA of Chantilly, Virginia; and Collins Aerospace of Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Two Command and Control Communications Service Providers: AURA of McLean, Virginia, and Collins Aerospace of Charlotte, North Carolina

Each tabletop exercise takes place on a video call and includes a realistic set of initial conditions for a flight plan. NASA subject matter experts, a vehicle developer, and additional partners who provide services such as airspace management and flight communications are each assigned roles in all parts of future AAM operations. These include the vehicle itself, vertiports, flight paths, air traffic control, weather, detect and avoid scenarios, and radio communication.

The scripted simulated flight scenario then proceeds, with live variables scattered throughout, prompting participants to find the best paths forward while gathering lessons learned – addressing issues years before pilots, passengers, or cargo are involved.

Microsoft Teams screenshot of chart data.
A team composed of NASA’s National Campaign researchers and representatives from various industry partners participate in a recorded virtual tabletop discussion on Thursday, October 20, 2022. The slide pictured prompts the various actors to read and react to aspects of a hypothetical flight to gather data and develop alternative paths forward when necessary for use in airspace planning.

The NASA team worked with Wisk Aero, the primary partner in this activity, to develop the tabletops’ various “user stories” based on a concept of AAM operations made public by Wisk. From March to May 2022, the first set of discussions focused on expectations of a real-world commercial operation and varying levels of AAM complexity such as effective radio communication for navigation, landing space available at vertiports, or avoiding buildings, trees and other aircraft in flight. The next phase developed detailed scenarios for flight tabletop exercises conducted from August-October 2022.

“We are proud to be the primary partner for NASA’s AAM airspace tabletop exercises, which provide a unique opportunity for collaboration among industry partners in the National Campaign,” said Sonal Baid, senior product manager for Airspace Integration at Wisk. “For Wisk, this effort has allowed us to validate and refine our existing Concept of Operations to help reach the proposed midterm state as a steppingstone, while also working to define progressive AAM maturity levels. These tabletop exercises are laying the foundation that is necessary for long-term success in the AAM ecosystem.”

National Campaign released a public report of lessons learned from these tabletop meetings in early 2023, assisting the AAM industry in proactively addressing issues and begin operations.

The tabletop series is one part of a broad collection of National Campaign research activities with partners currently working on AAM vehicles, automation software, and future airspace planning. NASA will share the obtained data with the partners as well as the FAA and use it to inform community considerations and standards development for the future of the aviation industry.

NASA’s AAM mission’s National Campaign team leads foundational research efforts to learn more about aircraft performance, automation, infrastructure, and airspace integration. By executing this critical leadership in the developing AAM sector, the National Campaign reinforces NASA’s commitment to transforming aviation by reducing its environmental impact, while maintaining safety.