Moonware launches its autonomous ground handling service, with plans for the Urban Air Mobility market

Moon­ware has announced its launch as an inde­pen­dent com­pa­ny to pro­vide soft­ware as a ground han­dling ser­vice and help auto­mate air­ports and, in future, Sky­ports for Urban Air Mobil­i­ty oper­a­tions.

The San Fran­cis­co-based com­pa­ny com­plet­ed a suc­cess­ful year-long col­lab­o­ra­tion with Uber Ele­vate, and designs, devel­ops and oper­ates autonomous and elec­tric vehi­cles to move air­craft around air­fields.

They fea­ture a nov­el and patent­ed mech­a­nism that lever­ages the weight of the air­craft’s front nose gear to gen­er­ate the nec­es­sary torque for tug­ging oper­a­tions. This also allows them to accom­mo­date dif­fer­ent land­ing gear con­fig­u­ra­tions and min­imis­es land­ing gear struc­tur­al fatigue, when com­pared to oth­er clamp­ing or pin-latch mech­a­nisms.

To get more insight into Moon­ware’s work and its objec­tives in the Urban Air Mobil­i­ty mar­ket, we spoke to CEO Javier Vidal and CTO Saunon Malek­shahi, who are also the com­pa­ny’s founders.

Q: I’ve seen the video of your autonomous vehi­cle plat­form and it looks real­ly cool. Can you tell me a bit more about this please?

Javier Vidal: “Thank you! The incep­tion of the com­pa­ny start­ed as a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Uber Ele­vate, which fore­sees that most eVTOL air­craft in their net­work won’t be able to taxi or maneu­ver by them­selves when they land on Sky­ports. This is because most eVTOLs are elec­tric and bat­tery-heavy, which makes them very weight restrict­ed.

“What a lot of man­u­fac­tur­ers are real­is­ing is that it’s advan­ta­geous to offload as many func­tion­al­i­ties as they can to the ground. One of those is the abil­i­ty to have motorised land­ing gear, which would nat­u­ral­ly add a lot of weight and com­plex­i­ty to the eVTOL air­craft.

“The com­pa­ny start­ed with the goal to solve that prob­lem in Sky­ports and con­ceive a vehi­cle that would be able to move eVTOL air­craft from the land­ing pad to the park­ing spots. So we devel­oped that: a ful­ly autonomous, ful­ly elec­tric vehi­cle, oper­at­ing in a very con­strained envi­ron­ment which makes it very easy to deploy. Then we realised that the same solu­tion could be expand­ed into busi­ness, gen­er­al and com­mer­cial avi­a­tion. 

“It’s a very inter­est­ing time because the indus­try land­scape has remained stag­nant for the past 50 years and there has been very lit­tle inno­va­tion. With COVID-19, the indus­try is ripe for dis­rup­tion. Deploy­ing all these autonomous vehi­cles would save air­lines and air­ports bil­lions of dol­lars every year, which makes it very attrac­tive.”

Q: That’s incred­i­ble to think your autonomous vehi­cle plat­form would save air­lin­ers and air­ports that much mon­ey. Are you able to expand on where you think these cost sav­ings could be made, as a result of this project?

JV: “For avi­a­tion, there are a few aspects that we’re tack­ling and solv­ing which can ease the bur­den on the ground oper­a­tions for air­lin­ers, but this also applies to Urban Air Mobil­i­ty. 

“By elim­i­nat­ing air­craft engine use for ground oper­a­tions, we’re able to reduce the aircraft’s ener­gy con­sump­tion, which in turn increas­es the range. We also reduce the net acoustic foot­print of Sky­ports and air­ports. For Sky­ports, it’s going to be very impor­tant because they will be locat­ed in very dense urban areas, and pub­lic accep­tance plays a big role here.

“By automat­ing ground oper­a­tions, we also reduce delays and con­ges­tions, which enables a greater through­put and can poten­tial­ly ease the work­load of ramp oper­a­tors. It also increas­es safe­ty through the per­fect repeata­bil­i­ty of our move­ments and eas­es the bur­den of the load they have to do.

“It’s basi­cal­ly five main aspects: we’re pre­vent­ing acci­dents, reduc­ing delays, sav­ing on fuel costs, eas­ing the work­load of ramp oper­a­tors and improv­ing safe­ty.”

Q: All sounds great. Where are you at with devel­op­ments now for your autonomous vehi­cle plat­form?

JV: “We’re devel­op­ing our cloud-based traf­fic man­age­ment net­work and our vehi­cle plat­form in par­al­lel. We have an amaz­ing team of engi­neers that come from indus­try play­ers such as Google, Way­mo, Uber, Ama­zon, Mer­cedes-Benz and Gen­er­al Motors. We’re on track for a 2023 mar­ket launch.”

Q: Is 2023 the year you plan to enter the Urban Air Mobil­i­ty mar­ket, or it is just gen­er­al avi­a­tion to start with first and then Urban Air Mobil­i­ty in future?

JV: “As you know, there is some­what of an uncer­tain­ty as to when the Urban Air Mobil­i­ty mar­ket is going to launch. Uber has said 2023, Lil­i­um has said 2025 and a few oth­ers have said 2024. So to cir­cum­vent that uncer­tain­ty, we’re launch­ing in 2023 in busi­ness avi­a­tion to tow pri­vate jets. And if the Urban Air Mobil­i­ty mar­ket launch­es in that same year, then we’ll be ready to tow vehi­cles in that sec­tor too.” 

Saunon Malek­shahi: “The weight class of both pri­vate jets and eVTOL air­craft is very sim­i­lar, so the same vehi­cle plat­form can be used inter­change­ably between Sky­ports and small pri­vate air­ports.

“The rea­son why we’re tar­get­ing pri­vate jets is because their move­ment requires a more rig­or­ous oper­a­tion in air­ports when you com­pare that to the oth­er gen­er­al avi­a­tion air­craft. Light­weight air­craft like Cess­nas can be moved by hand very eas­i­ly, but pri­vate jets require more struc­tured han­dling.

“After deploy­ing in gen­er­al avi­a­tion and Urban Air Mobil­i­ty, we will use these expe­ri­ences as a test­bed to deploy in com­mer­cial avi­a­tion by 2026 or ear­li­er.”

Q: Do you think start­ing off in busi­ness avi­a­tion could help lay the foun­da­tions for Urban Air Mobil­i­ty, when it does come to fruition?

JV: “Absolute­ly. Our ini­tial oper­at­ing envi­ron­ments will be great learn­ing expe­ri­ences. A deploy­ment in gen­er­al avi­a­tion, how­ev­er, will be more com­pa­ra­ble to com­mer­cial avi­a­tion, giv­en the sim­i­lar­i­ties in oper­a­tional pro­to­col.

“With every vehi­cle we deploy, we’re able to gath­er data about air­craft move­ment, path opti­mi­sa­tion, route plan­ning and auton­o­my stack learn­ing. So def­i­nite­ly, what­ev­er mar­ket we deploy vehi­cles in will be a great test bed for our future plans for growth.”

Q: You men­tioned you’re build­ing your new test pro­to­type, do you have an idea of when you will begin test­ing and how long it would take?

JV: “We’re oper­at­ing thank­ful­ly in very con­strained envi­ron­ments, so it’s easy to man­age the vehicle’s auton­o­my because of the lim­it­ed num­ber of uncer­tain­ties. By com­par­i­son, semi-autonomous cars on pub­lic roads have to watch out for pedes­tri­ans cross­ing the street, traf­fic lights, stop signs, bicy­cles and a near-infi­nite num­ber of edge cas­es.

“In air­ports, every­thing is clear­ly marked and the oper­a­tions are so rig­or­ous that deploy­ing an autonomous solu­tion in that envi­ron­ment is much eas­i­er and more fea­si­ble with today’s tech­nol­o­gy.

“Regard­ing our vehi­cles, we will be con­tin­u­ous­ly build­ing and test­ing our pro­to­types through­out the next two years, with a com­mer­cial­ly viable prod­uct by 2022 that will be ready for deploy­ment in 2023.”

Q: What spe­cif­ic advan­tages can your autonomous vehi­cle plat­form bring to Urban Air Mobil­i­ty?

SM: “Regard­ing Urban Air Mobil­i­ty, the video on our web­site explains most of the func­tion­al­i­ties of our vehi­cles and how they will inter­face with eVTOL air­craft on Sky­ports. But fun­da­men­tal­ly speak­ing, between Urban Air Mobil­i­ty and avi­a­tion, what we’re try­ing to pri­ori­tise is max­imis­ing air­field through­put and flight vol­ume, by min­imis­ing air­craft turn­around time and reduc­ing poten­tial acci­dents of course.

“In a high flight through­put envi­ron­ment, the slight­est mishap can cause tremen­dous con­ges­tion and delays. When you’re able to build an autonomous fleet of vehi­cles that have access to air­craft flight plan data, all of them can work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly to move these assets.

JV: “The soft­ware aspect of our vehi­cles is what dis­tin­guish­es us from oth­er com­pa­nies, and it’s pre­cise­ly this val­ue add that has attract­ed the inter­est of air­lines and oth­er air­fields to using a solu­tion like ours. This includes both the autonomous nav­i­ga­tion and the cloud-based fleet man­age­ment net­work.

“Since all our vehi­cles are equipped with high-pre­ci­sion GPS mod­ules, we know their loca­tion in real time across an entire air­port or Sky­port, essen­tial­ly oper­at­ing them as a fleet. They’re in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion with each oth­er, so our net­work is able to effi­cient­ly dis­patch the right num­ber of vehi­cles to the right air­craft at the right time, opti­mis­ing routes to reduce con­ges­tion and min­imise delays.”

Q: How would this fleet man­age­ment net­work work from an end user point of view i.e. a tech­ni­cian work­ing at an air­port or Sky­port?

JV: “We will have a dash­board on an iPad or lap­top, where you’re able to see the real-time loca­tion of all of our vehi­cles; their pre­de­ter­mined routes, whether they’re tow­ing an air­craft or not, and how much bat­tery charge they have left.

“There will be a ramp tech­ni­cian over­see­ing the vehi­cles to make sure every­thing is in order, and in the event of a mal­func­tion, those tech­ni­cians will be able to com­mu­ni­cate with the vehi­cles or man­u­al­ly over­ride them.

“Our vehi­cles are also capa­ble of autonomous­ly nav­i­gat­ing to charge points when they detect they are low on bat­tery charge. This can be to a pre­de­ter­mined charg­ing dock infra­struc­ture or to a bat­tery swap loca­tion.”

Q: Any­thing else you would like to add about Moon­ware and your goals and objec­tives in the Urban Air Mobil­i­ty mar­ket?

JV: We’re very excit­ed about this ven­ture and believe there’s great poten­tial to tru­ly reshape the way air oper­a­tions take place. There is no bet­ter time to come in and trans­form the indus­try for the bet­ter.

For more infor­ma­tion about Moon­ware, vis­it www.moonware.com ​ or email contact@moonware.us

Avatar photo

Jason Pritchard

Jason Pritchard is the Editor of eVTOL Insights. He holds a BA from Leicester's De Montfort University and has worked in Journalism and Public Relations for more than a decade. Outside of work, Jason enjoys playing and watching football and golf. He also has a keen interest in Ancient Egypt.

eVTOL Insights is part of the Industry Insights Group. Registered in the UK. Company No: 14395769