‘Checkmate’ on Highway Congestion? Planning Agency, NASA Team Up To Introduce Airborne Drones, Taxis To Relieve DFW Traffic Jams

The North Central Texas Council of Governments and NASA are working on long-term transportation plans, from delivery drones to passenger-carrying air taxis.

The Advanced Urban Air Mobility NASA partnership is one of many irons NCTCOG has in the fire to improve traffic flow in one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation.

A NASA illustration depicts the idea of a future air taxi hovering over a municipal vertiport. [Rendering: NASA/Lillian Gipson and Kyle Jenkins]

When learning the game of chess, students are often thrilled with the knowledge that the knight — and only the knight — can jump over other pieces to move around the board.

Experts in North Texas are now working a traffic “knight” — vehicles capable of literally leaping over conventional traffic — into their long-term transportation plans. The “knights” in question range in size from small package delivery drones to passenger-carrying air taxis, and they might change the transportation game across the United States. NASA defines such a network as “Urban Air Mobility.”

But a host of questions must be answered first. Where should these jumping-off points — called vertiports — be? What criteria should be used to answer that question?

Brainstorming, Not Barnstorming

The North Central Texas Council of Governments and NASA are delving into questions such as those in several upcoming workshops to determine the best way to integrate three-dimensional travel into the conventional highway and rail systems that comprise the existing transportation framework.

Local parties from a variety of sectors — including government, military, education, and private industry — will meet in key cities during the summer of 2021 to hash out those details and recommendations, which will be presented to NASA, which is leading four workshops for the DFW region; other similar workshops are being held in Orlando, Minnesota, Ohio, and Massachusetts.

“They are calling them workshops, but they will be more like brainstorm sessions to determine a solution to integrating this new industry into our existing planning structure,” wrote Ernest Huffman, the North Texas Central Council of Government’s program manager for aviation planning and education, in response to a query from Dallas Innovates.

Groundwork for Aerial Travel

Flying cars, aerial drones, etc. — called Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) technologies — aren’t new to DFW, according to Huffman.

“We have two Advanced Air Mobility testing areas — one in the Mineral Wells Innovation Zone, and in the Alliance Mobility Innovation Zone,” he wrote. “And we have the North Texas Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Safety and Integration Initiative, which is composed of 300-plus stakeholders, and 160-plus organizations.”

Among them are representatives from the Texas Air National Guard, the University of Texas at Arlington, the City of McKinney, and even a test pilot from Bell Textron.

Brainstorming sessions will primarily center around manned flight, with the understanding that unmanned flight won’t take place until later years.

Huffman said the region’s track record in advanced air mobility played a strong role in bringing the NASA-backed workshops to Dallas-Fort Worth. Also helping was that NCTCOG applied to host the NASA workshop.

Air Mobility Another Piece of the Puzzle

The Advanced Urban Air Mobility NASA partnership is one of many irons NCTCOG has in the fire to improve traffic flow in one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation. Other efforts include working to advance autonomous vehicular travel, coordinating the use of technology and data to ease traffic flow, and helping to research the feasibility of a high-speed rail connection between Dallas and Fort Worth.

“There is potential for Advanced Air Mobility to help in the efficient moving of people and goods, especially in a region that is growing as fast as Dallas-Fort Worth,” wrote Huffman. “The workshops provide an opportunity to develop a game plan for integration through the collaboration that will take place.”

The workshops will not be webcast or be open to the public, according to NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington.

In an email to Dallas Innovates, Harrington wrote that NASA is looking forward to working with NCTCOG because many on the Council of Governments team have served as NASA advanced air mobility research partners. 

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Dave Moore has 30 years’ experience in writing, editing, reporting, and analysis. He’s traveled to Bosnia to observe efforts to boost the country’s post-Soviet economy, explored the causes of ho(...)