Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has received a four-year contract worth more than $7.2 million from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), to develop air taxi technology and test the design capabilities of artificial intelligence-augmented design systems.

SwRI is one of the USA’s largest independent, non-profit, research and development organisations, and the project will be led by SwRI’s Senior Computer Scientist Austin Whittington. The project is part of DARPA’s Symbiotic Design for Cyber Physical Systems program and the two teams will begin working before the end of 2020. They are expected to be complete in Autumn 2024.

Whittington said: “Air taxis are a very exciting idea that also presents very a challenging engineering problem. In many ways, it’s the perfect concept to test an AI’s design capabilities.”

Engineers led by Dr. James Walker, director of SwRI’s Engineering Dynamics Department, will create pieces and parts of air taxis that AI computer design systems will use to design the completed vehicle. The team will analyse the AI’s air taxi designs and evaluate its design capabilities.

They will judge the designs produced by the AI-augmented design systems based on whether they meet specific criteria, such as being no larger than two cars parked beside each other, has a useful range of at least 20 to 30 miles, and is capable of carrying at least two people. The specific requirements will be developed as part the program.

Walker said: “What’s exciting about the air taxi is that advances in controls, batteries, and electric motors have completely opened up the design space. There are lots of potentially viable designs to be explored.”

Designing an air taxi presents several engineering challenges. There are a wide range of design options, from larger versions of quadrotor drones, which use four spinning rotors to lift the aircraft, to many distributed propellers for vertical take-off and landing but relying on traditional lifting surfaces (wings) for the majority of the flight profile.

“There’s less room for human error with AI-driven design,” Whittington added. “AI systems are capable of thinking far outside the box and come up with concepts that people never would have.”

Whittington’s team will also collaborate with researchers from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, on modeling the air taxi’s cyber-physical systems (CPS), computer systems that link sensing, control and computation between user and machine. They are increasingly common in automobiles and can be found in nearly every commercial and military aircraft.