The integration of electric vertical take-off and landing (EVTOL) aircraft in the air transport system is one current issue to which regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are giving particular consideration. Mario Pierobon reports from the recent EASA FAA Safety Conference.

EVTOL integration has distinctive implications when it comes to regulating the training needed to operate and maintain these machines, which are nearly entirely unexplored from a regulatory point of view. This topic was addressed in depth during a panel at the annual EASA FAA Safety Conference held in Cologne, Germany in June.

The kinds of licenses and training that will be required to fly such aircraft are still in negotiation with the different authorities, according to Jan Hendrik Boelens, Chief Technology Officer at Volocopter.

“We need a level playing field or some kind of international consensus. From our point of view, our aircraft and many others that feature full fly-by-wire systems do not become scalable. Therefore, the crew license that one will need to fly such aircraft, at least from a point of view of controlling the machine, should be significantly simpler to acquire compared to what is needed for a typical helicopter,” he said. “We envisage that the crew will be there for navigation and there will also be systems onboard taking a lot of the work from the crew and for avoiding collision and obstacles, including the notorious ‘burrito drones’ that can pop up at low levels. In the end on board there is going to be a human sense-and-avoid system.”

The EVTOL community is looking at the appropriate type of licensing together with the authorities. “The classic way of achieving a commercial license is indeed a very expensive process which would of course limit the scale at which we can deploy our type of business. In our view, there are many parts in the training for a commercial pilot’s license which are not really applicable to the whole culture of flying in our context,” said Boelens. “A simple example is cross-country navigation. With 30-35 kilometres range we simply do not do it. We only fly under VFR conditions, at least in our initial missions. We see the main demand during the day. We are also limited to night VFR for night operations. There are many aspects of the commercial pilot license that we do not see as applicable to what we want to do, and this is why we are negotiating on special conversion trainings for pilots.”

Currently, there are three main categories for pilot licenses: aeroplane, helicopter and powered lift. Concerning the possibility of a fourth category, Boelens said that this is most likely not going to be available from day one of EVTOL operations.

“We aim to go into operation in 2021, two years from now, and for us that means by that time we need to have at least an initial licensing policy in place that does not have to be the gold standard, but it has to be something that we can work with,” he said. “If on day one we will have to go in service with a helicopter pilot, that will be fine. But going forward after day one, we are obviously considering with the relevant competent authorities what the right licensing model for this type of aircraft is.”

EASA is currently conceptualising and coordinating with the affected industry as well as with the European Member States to put in place a future training system addressing the needs of EVTOL development.

“Main coordinates in this will be an operation-centric approach, and a flexible, agile structure in order to allow for the expected step-by-step, further development of the systems at stake, in particular of the level of automation. This way, it will be ensured that future provisions will respect the specificities of this new market and will be duly in place for the launch phase of its operation,” said EASA.

Training Differences Vs Traditional

Throughout the testing and operational experience developed thus far by Volocopter pilots, some main safety issues and safety risks that are specific to this kind of operations have emerged; these are dictating the kinds of skills that need development in training for flying EVTOL aircraft. These include the likes of flying over cities and congested areas that do not have suitable landing spots.

“City operations are of course the main aspect; vertical take-off and landing in confined spaces is not something that every pilot in his/her typical training is familiar with and this is going to require skill development,” said Boelens. “Moreover, gusts that develop around high-rise buildings are also noteworthy, and so are high obstacles which one might find in inner cities. Efficient route planning and emergency landing are also particular issues that we need special training for. If in the future, we are going to be flying in the more congested lower air space together with drones, that will also require training for making sure that we actually keep official separation from unmanned drones as well.”

Maintenance Training Without Combustion

Much like flight operations, EVTOL maintenance also requires regulation and with it maintenance training. “For the maintenance regime of these aircraft we are introducing some novel technologies – such as the batteries – as well as novelties as to how the systems are set up, embedded and integrated. This is different compared to legacy aircraft, and for these technologies maintenance personnel indeed need specific training,” said Oliver Reinhardt, head of airworthiness at Volocopter. “From the other end, however, there is a whole range of legacy disciplines which simply do not apply to EVTOL aircraft maintenance. For example, on-board EVTOL aircraft we do not have mechanical controls nor combustion turbine engines. The classical greased and oiled systems are just not existing anymore. The same holds true for the hydraulic and climatic systems to a large extent.”

A different set of skills are needed much like in modern electric cars, where the need is for ‘digital mechanics’. “It will be important that people are able to read out and analyse the data that is produced by the on-board systems because we have health monitoring systems that generate data which need to be interpreted. Some of the data will be interpreted by software and then there is going to be the need of taking action based on that data that is being generated and interpreted,” said Reinhardt.

Integrated Safety for Small Aircraft

Given the small size and range of EVTOL aircraft they would be the ideal fit for pilot owners; however pilot owners are not in the business model of Volocopter.

“We are not selling to private persons or wealthy individuals. This is not our business model exactly because we put a focus on safety. We know that there are many owner-operators that have a different risk profile compared to a professional pilot,” said Boelens. “We see it as a global safety approach, the keyword is safety management system. We aim not just to influence the type design of the aircraft, but also how maintenance and operations are performed, how routes are planned and also how crews are trained. So, in order to have sufficient crew available to operate our fleet we also want to offer crew training. We envisage this to be specifically type conversion from a classic ‘legacy’ type of aircraft to flying the volocopter in urban environments.”

Published in CAT issue 4/2019