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The Future of Flight (FoF) roadmap empowers a vision to position the UK as a global leader in advanced aviation solutions. The rapidly developing market for Urban Air Mobility (UAM) faces several design challenges, two major ones being:
- Flight control
- Communications systems
With funding from Innovate UK, the Novel Control Approaches to Complex Aircraft Dynamics project – NOMAD – addresses these challenges to further both innovation and development of available software and hardware technology into a new affordable, adaptable, and resilient autopilot and Flight Control System (FCS). EASA and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) can later certify this development. The NOMAD project is aligned to the goals of the Aerospace Technology Institute, creating the technology strategy for UK aerospace by building upon the UK’s strengths and responding to the challenges faced by the UK civil aerospace sector; promoting transformative technology in air transport and funding world class research and development.
NOMAD partners bring a wealth of experience to the project. The Satellite Applications Catapult is Primed by Callen Lenz – a fast-growing Wiltshire based SME with over fifteen years of Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) experience across both military and civil domains. As a company they provide in-house air system design and manufacturing as well as integration services for both UK and global customers.
The Satellite Applications Catapult have brought in R4DAR technologies, Honeywell UK and Livewire Digital to build both the resilient communications and the detect and avoid systems, all integral to the NOMAD project:
- R4DAR is a Cambridge based company with a mission to make autonomous vehicles a reality through advances in several ground-breaking technologies. R4DAR’s innovative radar design and unique tagging solutions prime them for involvement in most sectors of autonomous vehicle technology.
- Honeywell is a global leader in connected aircraft solutions developing the first satellite communications system. As a company, they pioneered satellite communication technology more than four decades ago. Honeywell’s small UAV SATCOM modem is a mobile avionics communications system enabling Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) communication data transmission to and from the aircraft via satellite link. The small UAV SATCOM system operates on the fast, secure, and ultra-reliable Inmarsat SwiftBroadband high speed satellite network – achieving data transmission speeds of up to 200kbps!
- Livewire Digital, design software-defined networking. Satellite connections can exhibit delay, which in some scenarios can have an adverse effect on the applications. In the Nomad project, Livewire provided the Razorlink client to enable resilient multiple communication path capability on the UAV platform. With fluctuating Wide Area Network (WAN) services presenting intermittent connection drop out, the multi-link aspect provides a robust end-to-end user connection, swapping data transmission to an alternative bearer. The NOMAD UAV platform featured two main WAN services. The differentiation between the two link characteristics is large therefore the Razorlink bonding algorithm provided a link that would favour the use of 5G, if the link was available; falling back to Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) when required.
The Satellite Applications Catapult in conjunction with subcontractors Honeywell and Livewire, leveraged knowledge in communications systems to develop a resilient, high-integrity architecture which has been integrated, deployed, assessed and verified by UAV flight trials in Wiltshire. With R4DAR, we verified the use of a lightweight radar tracking and surveillance system as a proof-of-concept for UAV positioning and navigation services.
The NOMAD project spanned from May 2021 to October 2022, with development divided into the following areas:
- Satellite and cellular resilient and redundant communications system architecture design
- Radar positioning and navigation system deployment (radar)
- Satellite and cellular communication systems deployment (satellite and cellular)
- Test case and flight trial planning
- Ground test and verification
- Flight trials and assessment
NOMAD communication architecture overview
NOMAD uses two main WAN services. A high latency low-rate satellite link provided by Honeywell, routed via Inmarsat’s Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites, and a high throughput low latency cellular link provided by a 5G board connected to the nomadic 5G core network. The project utilised Honeywell’s RazorLink ‘SilverBlade’ providing the backhauling (i.e. Client and terminator end points) which bonds the terrestrial and satellite links and routes data traffic, allowing pre-defined policies and real time measurements of the network link characteristics to guarantee service continuity. Data transmitted via the 5G board is sent to the nomadic 5G core network which then forwards on the data to where it can be utilised. The radar data collected from the UAV is smart-routed by SilverBlade either through terrestrial link, or through the satellite link to the terminator nodes, before being collected at a radar application server where the data is ready for analysis, reporting, and potentially closed-loop control in the future.
The nomadic 5G node solution is a fully mobile, fully standalone system featuring a deployable mast and 5G core network, including the necessary hardware, software, and licensing for operation of the node at remote test locations around the country. The solution enables a facility integration of a stand-alone 5G node that can interlink with cellular and SATCOM coverage independent of any other public cellular networks.
NOMAD Project Development
The project’s objectives focus on development of a common methodology and understanding of control and communications systems, with new modular technologies that can be applied across the full range of emerging UAVs. The outcome accelerates both development, verification, and regulatory certification of novel autonomous aircraft within CAA airspace.
Using an existing complex fixed-wing UAV built and designed by Callen Lenz, development through two stages of flight testing proceeded. Despite challenges faced, including initial SATCOM interference on the first test flight and power management constraints for effective operation of the SATCOM unit on the second flight, the NOMAD communications architecture for the UAV was verified.
Callen-Lenz are continuing the development of the NOMAD platform with:
- Subscale Development and Preparation
- Logistics and receipt of sub-scale prototype aircraft
- Sub-scale aircraft design, build and integration
- Installation of CL/SC FCS
Westcott Drone Port as a Testbed and Future Business Ecosystem
The Nomadic 5G Node is solely for use at remote ground and flight test around the country that require a 5G bubble for communications; more substantial support, data gathering, and analysis of test programmes is available at Westcott’s Future Networks Development Centre (FNDC). The FNDC is part of the Westcott Space Cluster, located near the Westcott Business Incubation Centre.
The area around the Westcott test site offers a diverse topographical environment, with multiple environment challenges for putting UAVs through test cases. Unmanned BVLOS drone operations will scale-up with the advances in the sector over the upcoming years. The Drone Test and Development Centre (DTDC) is a state-of-the-art testbed for developing automation and BVLOS capabilities, providing incremental challenges for verifying small and medium drone platforms in a controlled and safe environment. Through bringing multiple small UAV projects together at Westcott’s DTDC, a bigger combined impact on both the regulation and industry can materialise.
With OneWeb, 5G, and the ability to provide satellite Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and GEO connectivity at Westcott, most differences between airframes and providers can be resolved, enabling communications and surveillance to be offered as a service. Potential staging of demonstrations could prove invaluable for proof of concept of airframes and technology. Industries could benefit from using the DTDC, expediting regulatory backing, public acceptance and attracting more funding for drone ports, corridors and future partner company backing.