Honeywell CTO Describes Simplified, Integrated Approach To AAM

Honeywell’s Simplified Vehicle Operations simulator is housed at its Phoenix AAM Lab. 

Credit: Honeywell

Honeywell has emerged as one of the leading suppliers in the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry, providing mission critical systems to Archer Aviation, Lilium, Pipistrel, Supernal and Vertical Aerospace, among other developers of electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles. 

As the company develops its systems for new AAM platforms, including avionics, fly-by-wire, electric motors, actuators and more, it is designing everything with a simplified vehicle operations (SVO) approach in an effort to reduce manual pilot workload by automating as many flight processes as possible, according to Jia Xu, CTO of Honeywell's AAM Group. 

“The SVO paradigm basically says that the vehicle system, level of automation and the flight controls technology should work together to reduce the complexity of routine flight operations so that the flight becomes highly automated,” Xu tells the AAM Report. “We are designing everything around a high level of safety and contingency management automation to deal with unplanned events, and a high level of automation in the actual flight execution through an urban environment. That’s what we aim to deliver.”

A simulator mockup of the SVO concept is housed at Honeywell’s AAM Lab in Phoenix, adjacent to the Phoenix-Deer Valley Airport, where the company performs much of the R&D work related to uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) and urban air mobility (UAM). Some of the development work at the facility includes designing and testing aircraft control systems, ground control stations for autonomous vehicles and integration of avionics, Xu says.

“The AAM Lab is really the fulcrum of everything we do across AAM,” Xu says. “All of our systems are designed to be not only simple, but highly integrated, with everything influencing everything else. We really have to think in a multidisciplinary way, and the lab helps us facilitate that.”

The Honeywell CTO also offered an update on several of the flagship products within the company’s broad UAM portfolio. On the fly-by-wire, for example, Xu described a “highly miniaturized” solution that is designed to be triple redundant to target the European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA) Special Condition for VTOL (SC-VTOL), enabling it to be used on technology demonstrators from Lilium and Vertical Aerospace. The system is critical because eVTOLs often have dozens of actuators powering flaps, flaperons and ailerons, as well as the rotors themselves and the variable-pitch elements in the propellers, Xu says.

“You need fly-by-wire to interpret the pilot’s intent and translate that into the commands on all the actuators,” he says. “The whole platform is something like 10-lb., so it’s really several orders of magnitude removed in terms of weight reduction and power consumption from traditional fly-by-wire systems, which are the size of bookshelves and weigh hundreds of pounds.”

For avionics, Honeywell is developing its next-generation Anthem platform for the UAM market, which is a highly modular design that comes with a high degree of customizability and the ability to host third-party applications with a highly streamlined certification process, Xu says. The Anthem avionics suite is currently being used by Lilium and Vertical, and Honeywell is in talks with Supernal and other customers about incorporating the system into their vehicles, he says.

“We’re not just building a bespoke avionics system for everybody; we are rather building a tooling and compute platform for people to adapt this to their own needs,” Xu says. “That’s critical because there are unique needs for UAM in terms of avionics, because the vehicles are really part airplane and part helicopter. Therefore, that transitional phase of flight places additional demands in terms of avionics functionality.”

In terms of actuation, Xu says that Honeywell is building fault-tolerant, highly miniaturized electromagnetic flight control actuators specifically for use in eVTOL aircraft. The actuators, which are heavily integrated with the fly-by-wire system, are currently being used by Archer Aviation for its Midnight air taxi, among other programs. 

“Historically in aviation, there has been less of primary flight control actuation by electromechanical means than hydraulic-type systems, so this is also new territory in many respects,” Xu says.

Honeywell has also partnered with Japanese automotive components manufacturer Denso Corporation to develop and produce its Elexcore electric propulsion unit (EPU) for AAM vehicles. The lightweight, high-power-density EPU is currently undergoing ground testing and will be ready for flight testing later this year. By partnering with an experienced global tier-one auto supplier, Honeywell can tap into the company’s expertise in automation and large scale.

“That really tracks well with Honeywell’s ability to certify and design aviation-grade power electronics,” Xu says.

Ben Goldstein

Based in Washington, Ben covers Congress, regulatory agencies, the Departments of Justice and Transportation and lobby groups.