Site visit: Honeywell’s Advanced Air Mobility Lab in Arizona
By Paul Brinkmann|April 21, 2023
Company believes it is well-positioned to serve air taxi, drone markets
PHOENIX — Honeywell Aerospace headquarters in Phoenix, where the company’s advanced air mobility lab is located, is surrounded by desert landscaping including the classic saguaro cacti of the America west. Nearby, a tall white water tower looms over the property, the Honeywell name blazoned in red.
I am here to see the AAM Lab and learn more about Honeywell’s ambitions and activities with regard to this emerging industry, including air taxis and unmanned aerial systems or drones. And I’m hoping to test out the company’s AAM simulators.
Honeywell has long been a supplier of avionics, propulsion and other technology for jetliners and military aircraft. It now has a new division focused on supplying versions of that same technology, but for air taxi companies — specifically, Archer Aviation of California, Lilium of Germany, Slovenia-based Pipistrel, Washington, D.C.-based Supernal and Vertical Aerospace in the U.K. FAA officials have also visited the lab and tap into the data from the simulators, I’m told.
After entering the building’s north door for visitors, I’m soon greeted by Taylor Alberstadt, the company’s global sales leader for the UAS/Urban Air Mobility business unit, which was established three years ago and now has 40 employees. For Honeywell’s five announced customers in the AAM field, Alberstadt says the company has committed agreements for about $10 billion over the next five years.
Alberstadt explains that the unit is focused on enabling communications, navigation and surveillance systems for drones and electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, eVTOLs.
“We believe the way we move is changing again now on a historic level, much like the evolution of cars from diesel and unleaded gasoline to hybrid and then all-electric,” Alberstadt tells me. “And we think Honeywell is well-positioned to support this industry.”
After a brief orientation, I’m brought to the lab’s simplified vehicle operations (SVO) simulator, which runs operational Honeywell avionics systems in simulated flights of generic and specific eVTOL models. I take a seat at the controls, which include two gaming joysticks for each hand and two small display screens with data readouts and maps. In front of me, three larger screens show a simulated landscape in Texas.
“You’re at a vertiport, and the route that you’re gonna fly is from Frisco, Texas, which is a suburb of Dallas, to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport,” avionics system engineer José Anaya López tells me.
Knowing my history with simulators, I warn the Honeywell people that I’m likely to crash. They laugh and say the system will probably help me avoid that. I prove them wrong, but only because their autopilot override failed to engage at some point due to the length of time the simulator was running before I lifted off.
But the system does show me that flying an eVTOL is relatively easy with these systems. My right hand controls altitude by either pressing forward or back, and I change direction by pushing the joystick left or right. Speed is controlled by the left hand. I’m eager to pull the triggers, but I’m told they are not activated.
A purple line in the “sky” on the displays shows my intended route. But I can deviate from that if I want to, and the software is designed to automatically bring the aircraft back to that purple line once I let go of the controls.
“As much as you need to, you can override the system, but the sim will always bring you back to your route,” Alberstadt says.
However, because of the length of the simulator flight and my failure to use the touchscreen controls, I’m told the simulation concludes I’m incapacitated as a pilot, and it chooses a nearby medical vertiport facility as a closer landing site than the airport. But the automatic pilot function still doesn’t engage.
As I attempt a manual landing, I first go too slowly, then too fast, and wind up crashing. They reset the simulator, and it functions as intended on the next flight, returning to its intended flight patch once manual control is relinquished.
Alberstadt says the company has assembled SVO simulators for multiple AAM companies to test their aircraft systems.
Next, I’m shown the ground control station suite of screens and touchscreen controls. The technology enables a single operator or supervisor to keep track of multiple aircraft in flight. It can be configured to monitor passenger aircraft or cargo, with a pilot on board or not.
Aircraft are represented by icons with lines for flight paths over a map. Honeywell staff show me how the system warns of problems, such as air traffic control personnel sending a message that an intended vertiport for landing is closed to aircraft due to an unknown problem.
The ATC message results in an aircraft icon turning red with a warning. Pulkit Agrawal, a Honeywell principal certification engineer, shows me that touching the warning icon provides a list of options for the supervisor: divert to nearest vertiport, return to base or liftoff location, or landing immediately at the safest location, among others.
“This vision is that one person has access to an entire fleet,” Alberstadt says. “There could be multiple ground control stations in a region, where the supervisors can all monitor the local air traffic.”
Finally, I’m shown the companies’ UAV lab, which is focused on drone technology. Lab personnel are outfitting a hexacopter drone with a Honeywell satellite communications unit and a radar instrument to help the aircraft detect and avoid “noncooperative” aircraft nearby that may not be broadcasting their own positions.
Larry Surace, the Honeywell systems architect for UAS/AAM, shows me a small radar unit that weighs 1.4 kilograms, and tells me they are working on reducing that weight by half. Company personnel sometimes fly drones that carry in-development Honeywell tech in the facility’s parking lot, but they can only fly as high as the water tower is tall due to the proximity of Phoenix Deer Valley Airport.
Minimizing the weight of the radar would allow operators to mount several radar units around an eVTOL to make up for the limited range of view due to the smaller size, Surace says.
“A lot of folks are trying to use traditional camera systems to monitor the skies around the aircraft, but we want the radar to be able to detect other aircraft at night too,” he says.
After almost two hours at Honeywell, I leave Phoenix and head to AIAA’s Design, Build, Fly collegiate radio-controlled aircraft competition, having gained a little more knowledge and insight into how this legacy aerospace company is adapting for this new form of transportation.
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