Urban Air Mobility (Graphic Credit: Sumitomo Corporation)

UAM vehicles and UAV flying urban areas.  (Image Credit: Sumitomo Corporation)

The Sumitomo Corporation is leading collaboration between OneSky Systems and Tohoku University to study the feasibility of applying quantum computing optimization algorithms to the concept of Urban Air Mobility, or UAM.  UAM and quantum computing are two technologies on the edge of high-tech.  To marry the two is quite forward thinking.

What is Urban Air Mobility?

Urban Air Mobility (UAM) is the leading-edge concept of flight operations envisioned to handle aviation activities in, near, and around urban centers.  Ideally, transportation of people and goods within the urban environment and regions in-between will benefit.

As a subset to the broader regional and inter-regional Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) concept, UAM focuses on air traffic management operations pertaining to people and cargo within the urban setting.  As numbers of new vehicle types (Unmanned Aerial Systems, or UAS) increase and take to the skies, so to does the op-tempo take on a sky-high trajectory. 

We are on the cusp of quantum computing yielding clear quantum advantage over classical computing capabilities.  Forward thinking research and development out of Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation seeks to gain an early lead in UAM operations via quantum computing’s promising application to route optimization.    

 

NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration as well as commercial stakeholders such as Uber have been involved in developing the AAM concept.  Though a subset, the UAM component of AAM will be, arguably, the most computationally complex.

The Complexities

Akin to modern roadways and airways, the UAM ecosystem has UAM corridors.  The UAM corridors are envisioned to crisscross the overhead urban environment in a highly managed and efficient traffic system.  This 3-dimensional environment (4 dimensional if one considers the temporal element) is highly complex even in today’s human-in-the-loop airspace system. 

The figure above provides a notional map of UAM Corridors in a dense UAM environment.  Each green path represents a UAM Corridor requiring traffic management in real time.  Sumitomo is leading a pilot program to pull UTM and quantum computing together in managing such an environment (Graphic Source: NASA).

This figure provides a notional map of UAM corridors in a dense UAM environment.  Each green path represents a UAM Corridor requiring traffic management in real time.  Sumitomo is leading a pilot program to pull UTM and quantum computing together in managing such an environment (Graphic Source: NASA).

Managing the three-dimensional traffic in real-time is a computational challenge.  Conceptually, a Provider of Services (PSU) for UAM will provide support to most aspects of the UAM airspace.  These needs which are computationally intensive must be included in the traffic management calculations.    

The short list of computationally intensive needs in the UAM:  

  • Operations planning
  • Sharing of a flight’s intent
  • Deconfliction at the tactical and strategic levels
  • Airspace control

Further needs which must be addressed, and that PSUs could provide, are the UAM corridor congestion status, tracking of airspace reservations and overall operations optimization. 

A key optimization in any transportation sector is route optimization.  Finding optimal routes is one of the most computationally difficult yet sought after solutions by airlines, maritime cargo haulers, and logistics firms. 

Couple UAM and AAS, add hundreds or thousands of new types of autonomous or semi-autonomous aerial vehicles and there is the need for massive computational power to coordinate and direct the aerodrome environment safely and efficiently. 

Quantum Computing

Enter the proposed power of quantum computing, specifically quantum computing’s anticipated strength in route optimization.  Over the past three years, much has been made technologically possible to show promise in this cutting-edge and wildly obscure technology. 

Recently, the Sumitomo Corporation announced a pilot program with OneSky Systems, Inc., headquartered in the State of Pennsylvania, U.S., and researchers at Tohoku University, Japan.  The Pilot Program, as it is called, seeks to zero-in on quantum computing optimized flight management of routes and schedules for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) within the UAM. 

To enable unmanned traffic management (UTM) system, many additional factors must be considered by firms operating in the airspace.  We must add current weather conditions, flight positions and vectors, destinations, present and anticipated loads, and numerous other factors affecting traffic management.  These must be calculated in real-time.  Through quantum computing, the Pilot Program seeks to find a solution to such intensive calculations.

 

OneSky Systems, Inc., a global UTM developer of airspace management solutions, is providing its traffic management system for UAM and UAV traffic simulation.  Sumitomo acquired a partial stake in OneSky Systems, Inc. in April, 2020. 

Tohoku University is providing quantum computing technology for the project.  Tohoku University has demonstrated it is a leading Japanese academic institution for quantum technology with intent to accelerate applications for quantum computing. 

As program lead, Sumitomo Corporation expects to have completed the Pilot Program by December, 2021.  The end-goal is a determination of how to leverage quantum computing in solving the routing and scheduling optimization challenge conceptualized for UAM environment.  Regardless of the end-result of the the Pilot Program, this study shows great  foresight to bringing these technologies together at such an early stage in development.  Keeping the cybersecurity of it all is another story.

Author:  Robert Clifford, CISSP, MSc Cybersecurity