Volume 01 | Issue 10 | August 10, 2020
Autonomy, Supersonics, and Satellite Eavesdropping

Hello to all new subscribers to Future of Aerospace, and thanks to those sticking with us!
Today’s issue focuses on Autonomy & AI, Connectivity and Longshots

More specifically, in addition to summarizing four hours of excellent discussion earlier today on autonomy, we’ll look at cybersecurity and supersonic/hypersonic aircraft.

Hope you enjoy the issue.

—The Future of Aerospace Team
Greater Autonomy: Coming First to Logistics
Image: Xwing/Maxime Gariel

Autonomy experts across aerospace
convened earlier today in a discussion hosted by the Vertical Flight Society to discuss the state of play, including the capabilities necessary for different missions, aerospace-specific sensory challenges, and of course, certification.

One main takeaway: Increasing levels of autonomy will likely be commercialized in the logistics arena first, where a massive market exists and the stakes are lower than urban air mobility or non-logistics military applications.

Many participants stressed that autonomous functionality is a spectrum, not an on-off switch — and that when applied correctly, autonomy has the potential to realize significant safety benefits, not just operational cost reductions, as the industry has already seen across decades of steadily adoption autonomous tech.
  • Steve Jacobson, CEO of Autonodyne: “As a 4,000-hour pilot myself, I firmly believe that when I jump into an airframe, I am the weakest link in that airframe.”

  • Gary Gysin, CEO of Boeing/Kitty Hawk joint venture Wisk, told the audience his team did a statistical safety analysis of their two-seat Cora aircraft in manned versus unmanned scenarios and found that unmanned was the safer option.
Investment in various sensors for self-driving cars has clearly benefited aerial autonomy, but Maxime Gariel, CTO of Xwing, shared some of the sensory challenges specific to aerospace (see image above):
  • Large beam width is a problem. A radar with a five-degree beam width in either direction will report everything as at the altitude of the center of the beam, which is problematic when being used to detect aircraft thousands of feet away rather than a car in the next lane over.

    Gariel: “If you fly at like 5,000 feet AGL, anything that is on the ground 6,000 feet away will appear in the same beam as vehicles at your altitude. So that makes it very challenging to use these types of systems close to the ground. And that’s a call for the rest of the industry — to enable urban air mobility, we will need low-beam width radars and sensors.”

  • Sidelobes created by sensor beams can be difficult to dynamically filter and will often erroneously report objects on the ground or at vastly different altitudes.

    Gariel: “When you have a beam, [it creates] a bunch of sidelobes. In the case of an electronically scanned array, the true geometry of the sidelobes is much more challenging to understand than on conventional radar, so it’s sometimes difficult to model it and to figure out … An obstacle that is below us on the ground, actually in one of the sidelobes, is going to be reported in your main lobe. So, that requires a lot of dynamic filtering to understand where those sidelobes are and to be able to filter them.”
Participants were split on whether existing supply chains offered sensor packages suited for aerial autonomy purposes, with Gysin and Jacobson responding in the affirmative and Gariel stating he needs more precise, affordable long-range sensors to enable things like 2,000-foot separation.

Igor Cherepinsky, platform autonomy lead for Sikorsky, stating his team has had to become “deeply involved” with sensor suppliers who are “more like partners at this point” to produce what they want.

FAA’s unmanned and pilotless tech lead, Wes Ryan, signaled a preference for a “build-up” or “evolutionary” approach, for example using surrogate aircraft to test new technologies, rather than jumping to the revolutionary.
Researcher Demonstrates Satellite Eavesdropping on In-flight Passenger Internet
$300 of equipment to eavesdrop on satellite internet traffic on airplanes and ships around the globe.

Oxford PhD candidate and cybersecurity research James Pavur
, along with a team of European experts, used about $300 in home television equipment and specialized software to enable "satellite eavesdropping" on in-flight passenger and flight crew Internet data, as Pavur presented at Black Hat 2020 on August 5.

Pavur stressed that the tactics used by his team were nothing new, rather an update of methods that manipulate satellite signals to expose consumer broadband Internet that were first published by researchers from Germany’s Ruhr-University Bochum in 2005, and then again by researchers separately at the 2009 and 2010 editions of Black Hat DC. Their only addition was a new software tool designed to enhance their ability to discover and decipher Internet traffic from satellite data.

What did Pavur’s team demonstrate?
  • The team’s setup included a Selfsat satellite dish with a TBS-6983/6903 PCIe card/Digital Video Broadcast-Satellite tuner computer card.

  • Using the dish and tuner in combination with a program called EBS Pro that enables personal computer users to find and view satellite television feeds, the team was able to analyze 4 terabytes of data on signals from 18 satellites in geostationary orbit.

  • Their equipment was compatible with Ku-band satellite signals, so they focused on those.

  • Instead of using EBS Pro to find satellite television signals, they instead captured Internet data packets used passengers on networks deployed across land, sea and air to enable access to the use of websites and other connected services that generate traffic across those same signals.
“We found what I’m going to call the loneliest EFB,” Pavur said, referring to a Chinese airline pilot’s connected tablet whose Internet traffic they were able to monitor for several months.

“This specific Chinese airline had made a mistake in configuring their EFB, such that it wasn't logging in correctly. And so all of the requests that it was sending were getting bounced off of this redirect page from the satellite modem and reaching us. And we could use that to not only fingerprint like how this API works and what sort of data is being sent from the airplane, but we could also identify other vessels that were using this same device.”

Read more on Pavur’s demonstration of “satellite eavesdropping” on in-flight internet usage.
Tech, VC Move Forward on Supersonics — Are They Economically Viable?
Hermeus' team built and tested an engine prototype in nine months, which drew notice from the U.S. Air Force.

Competition toward the next generation of supersonic aircraft
continues to heat up, with a number of announcements in the past two weeks:
  • Hermeus Corporation won a $1.5 million prototyping award from the U.S. Air Force to work with the Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate, exploring potential modifications necessary to work their technology into a future executive fleet.

    Hermeus plans to bring Mach 5 flight to commercial aerospace, with an engine prototype successfully demonstrated earlier this year.

  • Boom Supersonic, slated to unveil its one-third sub-scale XB-1 demonstrator in October, recently partnered with Rolls-Royce to find the right propulsion system for its debut aircraft, the Overture.

  • Virgin Galactic, known primarily for its work toward commercial space tourism, jumped into the supersonic fray last week, announcing it will work with Rolls-Royce on a 9-19 passenger business jet that can fly at Mach 3.
While the next Air Force One, expected to be delivered next year, will be a modified Boeing 747-8, the Air Force’s award to Hermeus shows interest in something quite different — and quite a bit faster — for the generation of executive aircraft after that.

To get to market, Hermeus will have to raise a lot more money. A seed round and $1.5 million from AFWERX won’t build an airplane — and certainly not one that travels at Mach 5.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, tells us the business case for Hermeus’ vision — commercial airline supersonics — is “extremely difficult.”

Aboulafia: “I just don’t see how anyone can make money with supersonics in the commercial market. But private aviation is another story. There’s definitely a group of private jet users out there who don’t mind paying more and flying in a much smaller plane, and with much shorter ranges, in order to fly supersonic. And once there is a business jet that can buy a supersonically, there will be a military and government market for that jet.”

With a 20 pax aircraft, Hermeus believes it does have a path to both private and commercial aviation markets — the latter through business and first class, not economy.

AJ Piplica, co-founder of Hermeus: “Once you're over the drag hump at Mach 1, the per seat-mile costs don't change much … the fuel costs per seat-mile are higher than subsonic, but crew, amortization, and maintenance cost per seat-mile are lower, which keeps the overall costs point profitable around today's business class prices.”

Piplica adds: “There’s still lots of uncertainty that needs to be bought down to realize that cost point, which is why we're building, flying and iterating through multiple aircraft before we get too deep into Transport.”

Read more on supersonic/hypersonic competition and the economics of these new aircraft.
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