Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) are an important component of urban air mobility, drone taxis, and other future flight applications. Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky Innovations company is a leader in the development of VTOL.
Shaping the future of vertical flight: A Sikorsky innovation perspective
“Be extremely careful when combining the words ‘Impossible’ and ‘Aviation’.” -Ivan Sikorsky
By: Dawn MK Zoldi, guest author
What does the next decade of vertical flight look like? What’s next and what’s next? On Thursday, March 25, 2021, Jonathan Hartman, Sikorsky Innovations Strategy Lead, gave his insights into these questions in a virtual webinar at the New England Air Museum. His arm at Sikorsky, a Connecticut-based Lockheed Martin company, tackles the toughest challenges of vertical flight and matures next generation products by curating the global technologies, talents, processes and products to make them a reality.
Hartman stated that Sikorsky Innovations focuses on three technical pillars: speed, autonomy and intelligence. For each of these processes, Sikorsky draws technological advances in aviation and asks, “What does this mean for us that we didn’t have before?”
Your process is one that all successful tech organizations use. First, define the problem (What are we trying to solve? Is it a real problem?) Once defined, determine if there is a gap between technical feasibility and the realities of the market. (Given the reality of the market, can you solve the problem in the right market at the right time?) After that, you need to find your first customer and then find a way to get them to stay and convince others to do the same. what Hartman called the psychology of adoption. In order to create lasting change and sustainability, micro and macro fundamentals are required.
Urban air mobility (UAM) can solve a wide variety of traffic problems. The economic and social benefits of UAM have been widely recognized. The use of small vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (VTOL) in the third dimension to move people around cities as a means of transportation reduces traffic, improves the environment and improves the overall quality of life.
And that is now technically feasible. Hartman points to the availability and accessibility of computing power and advanced materials as necessary technological precursors. Advances in autonomy, big data, and 3D printing will also help unlock the potential of VTOL flight.
In terms of autonomy, Hartman envisions “optimally piloted aircraft”, which he describes as an aircraft that has the ability in the system to support the flight, regardless of how many pilots are in the loop, data from its environment record and meet contingencies administration. The goals of autonomy in the context of vertical lift are:
- Eliminate Leading Driver from VTOL Accidents – Deteriorated Visual Environment (DVE) / Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) accounts for 75% of all VTOL accidents
- Reduce pilot workload and enable crew reduction
- Allow flexibility in aircraft performance
Big data can also be used for the VTOL flight, especially in combination with intelligence. With the help of machine learning and advanced algorithms, an airplane can know itself and influence how it flies itself. For example, if the aircraft detects a blade damper in need of repair, it can change flight controls to relieve the load on that part and extend its life. On the prevention side, Hartman uses advanced analytics to predict a future in which the aircraft “calls maintenance workers for parts.”
3D printing will boost the industry by allowing parts to be produced on site reliably and with high quality. This significantly reduces maintenance costs and downtime.
Several other change agents will propel UAM up, including:
- Electrified drives – (vice drives) simplify vehicles, save costs and make maintenance easier; he called this “key to changing the industry”
- Reduced workload – coupled with autonomy when we can make what an aircraft does less complex for the people who need to interact with that aircraft
- Digital tapestry – data in all phases of the process to inform about decision making and actions
- Prognostics & Health Management (PHM) – proactive maintenance that is predictive and can handle problems in advance
The combination of all these skills and enablers leads to positive industry outcomes in the form of increased safety, more practical configurations, new markets, and increased resource availability (the ability to use an aircraft when needed without unscheduled maintenance).
Sikorsky Innovations works with its SARA (Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft), X2 technology (stacked rotors rotating in opposite directions for balance, maneuverability, levitation and pushing further and faster at speeds of more than 250 knots in cruises , towards this end state in their SB1 Defiant and S-97 Raiders) and Matrix ™ technology (for high-quality assets operated in a 3D environment, containing multispectral detection, safety certifiable for the transport of people, non-piloted and airworthy with only 45 minutes of training). Sikorsky’s ALIAS research mission with DARPA culminated in an end-to-end, fully autonomous mission. The plane had an in-charge pilot and a security pilot who used an iPad-like computer to navigate the plane as needed. However, the aircraft avoided obstacles without any input from the pilot, autonomously selected a landing site and landed on its own.
What does the future of VTOL look like?
- More flexible and adaptable – new missions are developing and improving faster than today
- Available and more productive – for customers to buy and operate
- Higher performance – faster, further, higher
- More sustainable – in all its forms – easier to care for and better for the environment
- More accessible – to the public for use cases that need them
The future has come for Sikorsky Innovations.
Dawn MK Zoldi (Colonel, USAF, retired) is a licensed attorney with 28 years of active military and federal service in the Air Force Department. She is an internationally recognized expert on the law and politics of unmanned aircraft systems, columnist for Law-Tech Connect ™ for Inside Unmanned Systems magazine, recipient of the Woman to Watch in UAS (Leadership) Award 2019 and CEO of P3 Tech Consulting LLC. You can find more information on their website at: https://www.p3techconsulting.com.