How NASA explored the future of urban air mobility
November 20, 2020
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has the technical expertise and dedication to tackle some of the most complex engineering challenges imaginable. Given its demonstrated ability to understand how to solve problems, NASA’s team also recognizes the importance of evaluating which problems to prioritize for the most impact.
Consider the work NASA, Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) is doing within the emerging urban air mobility (UAM) industry. NASA sees that the UAM industry offers a wealth of emerging opportunities to improve transportation, delivery, and data collection in cities. Imagine the benefits of widespread urban air taxis, air ambulances, and drone delivery, for example. ARMD launched several programs within NASA to identify roadblocks to safe operations and test creative solutions for the aviation industry, pushing the boundaries of what is possible within UAM.
Convergent Aeronautics Solutions (CAS) is one of many parts of NASA solving various problems within UAM. CAS’ focus area includes exploring weather related operations (WTO), or how manned and unmanned aircraft can operate in urban areas during inclement weather conditions.
NASA has the skills and industry leadership potential to drive UAM WTO forward. When there is so much untouched opportunity, though, how can it know what to dive into first?
The results included not just a series of next-step recommendations to push UAM WTO forward but also a framework CAS can use to encourage future innovation in other fields. Accenture supported CAS as it explored a more agile and human-centered problem-solving process for the agency.
NASA’s CAS sought a problem-oriented approach
New industries require new perspectives. Instead of quickly jumping into specific areas where it has the most technical expertise, CAS worked with Accenture to understand all of what the UAM industry currently needs in terms of WTO.
“They were looking to shift the way they pick problems, to look at things in a more convergent way,” said Rachel Moore, design strategist at Accenture’s Industry X.0 Boston Forge. “They wanted to look beyond solving individual technical problems, to actually consider what the overall vision for urban air mobility should be.”
Before NASA begins to deliver solutions in UAM WTO, CAS wanted a process through which to define the issues where they could make the most impact, identifying “trapped value.”
“The term we've been using is problem discovery, or problem analysis,” said Nathaneal Jeyachandran, design strategy manager and project lead for the engagement. “What does it even mean to have transformational impact? How do we understand the whole context? You want to do that first in order to push along this emerging industry.”
Accenture brought a variety of expertise
Accenture Federal Services brought to the table multiple players to help support CAS’s problem-solving process. These included industrial aviation and system-level experts within Accenture Industry X.0 and human-centered innovators from the Boston Innovation Studio. Other organizations on the engagement included Accenture’s Autonomous Robotic Systems and our Smart Cities Group.
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Hear more about how NASA’s Convergent Aeronautics Solutions explored the future of weather tolerant operations in urban air mobility from those that joined the engagement.
The variety of players collaborating allowed a wider perspective on UAM WTO.
From this core, the team expanded outward, seeking input from key UAM stakeholders, including mobility service providers, emerging and established technology companies, and the investment community.
Accenture and CAS led 27 deep-dive interviews with industry stakeholders, as well as two group workshops in San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio. The process also included 14 interviews with NASA leaders.
The information uncovered in the discovery phase was used to map personas and ecosystems, and ultimately to identify opportunities where NASA can make a unique impact in the UAM industry and specifically in weather tolerant operations.
One pillar of the problem-solving process included a stronger focus on qualitative data.
“NASA has historically been quantitative – they’re really good at measuring the known,” Moore said. “[The engagement] helped them to apply a human lens, to include qualitative research.”
For example, while quantitative data can map the efficiency of flight operators, qualitative data, collected through interviews, is needed to better understand operators’ greatest challenges and desires.
“Flight operators can say they need increased battery life or more effective ways to navigate through wind,” Moore said. “The qualitative view goes beyond the technical. It describes how value moves through an ecosystem, and how NASA can play a role in unlocking that value going forward.”
Prioritizing agile problem-solving
While exploring UAM WTO, NASA’s CAS also sought to adopt the principles of agile development, defining success through multiple iterations on the way toward a final goal. This helped the project stay on track despite the upheaval created by the COVID-19 pandemic and need to complete the work virtually.
Accenture demonstrated the value of an agile approach as it worked through the different stages of problem discovery. Multiple rounds of conversations with key stakeholders revealed successive layers of depth and complexity; this iterative approach meant priorities and areas of opportunity evolved along the way.
NASA CAS team members worked side by side with Accenture as the exploration process unfolded. “They were part of daily meetings, they were involved in the research and interviews,” Moore said. “That meant they had the chance to really be a part of the evolving process.”
The outcome of the engagement included a series of recommendations for how NASA might start approaching UAM WTO going forward. These focus areas included:
MICROWEATHER COST-BENEFIT SYSTEM – Cost-benefit analysis and solutions to gather micro-weather in urban environments.
KEY FACTORS IN WTO – Encourage collaboration by establishing industry alignment and guidance on key factors for WTO.
CONNECTIVITY NEEDS FOR WTO – Designing connectivity solutions for in-flight, real time weather data and reactivity.
UAM AND SOCIETY – Leading an interdisciplinary conversation about UAM and society to define a socially beneficial and economically equitable future.
AIRCRAFT SYSTEMS FOR WTO – Identifying and addressing the impact of complex weather on aircraft systems transporting people.
The engagement’s human-centered approach led NASA to consider additional perspectives beyond WTO, such as considering how UAM can benefit society equally.
“This is a whole new vision of transportation and it’s important to think right at the beginning about who that's going to service and how it's going to serve them,” Moore said. “NASA is thinking right at the start about how this can be done in a way that is equitable, that truly benefits all of society.”
Beyond the specific recommendations, CAS left the engagement with a toolkit of methodologies to drive future agile innovation.
“NASA is actively seeking new approaches to accelerate transformational change in the Aeronautics and Aerospace Industries. Accenture is proud to have a role in supporting NASA with that transformational journey,” said Michael Kleeblatt, Accenture Federal Services’ Growth & Innovation Lead for NASA.
No official NASA endorsement is intended or implied by references to NASA and quotations by NASA officials.
Managing Director – Accenture Federal Services, NASA Client Account Lead
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