Executive and Legislative Branches Laying Groundwork to Support eVTOL
The US Congress took two significant steps this summer to advance the safe, timely and efficient start-up of the nation’s rapidly expanding Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) sector. The House passed its version of legislation intended to initially codify key elements of the emerging sector. Mirroring other congressional organizations aimed to provide bipartisan support in the House and US Senate for policy areas of common interest, community proponents and advocates on Capitol Hill established the AAM Caucus.
White House OSTP Summit
The tectonic plates of US government involvement in the AAM market further shifted last month when the Biden administration, and specifically the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, hosted a summit on AAM for stakeholders from industry, government and academia. Rare are the times in recent in US history when the executive branch, and the White House, in particular, convenes a summit of this nature. The implications from this event are huge.
In one case, the White House signaled its intent to not cede leadership and innovation in the AAM sector to other nations. While the summit also noted the imperative to advance the full spectrum of technologies in this sector, it also emphasized AAM is a whole-of-government challenge. So, while the FAA and other US government entities familiar to CAT readers attended the summit, there were also delegates from the US Commerce and other departments and agencies deemed vital to the emerging sector. CAT reached out to executives from industry to gain their insights.
The summit was viewed as a vital stepping-off point for the community, with much more work to be done by all stakeholders to place the sector on a trajectory for safe, profitable and efficient operations.
James Viola, President and CEO of Helicopter Association International, was asked to provide his association’s current top challenges facing the eVTOL and AAM markets that require prompt federal government-level action not later than 2024 - given that Joby and other OEMs/operators envision operations in the next 24 months. The executive responded the first two issues are essentially connected: airframe certification and infrastructure. “We know that the manufacturers are conducting flight testing, but nothing has been certified by any civil aviation authority. As one would reasonably expect with any new airframe, we anticipate the FAA and other CAAs to be thorough in their certification processes. Twenty-four months seems like it's within reason, but I hesitate to put any time frame on a process where human life is concerned.”
Viola continued that, until airframe certification happens, it isn't easy to plan how the infrastructure should work and whether it will meet existing regulations. The FAA and other regulatory agencies are doing their best to develop the infrastructure. “Still, everyone will need more information about fueling or charging systems, passenger capacities, and flight characteristics, such as whether the aircraft will lift off like current rotorcraft or require something like a runway,” he said. “There are also a handful of localities that are working to limit flights by existing rotorcraft, and any resulting regulations have the potential to restrict AAM flights as well.”
HAI’s third issue of interest is personnel and workforce development. The rotorcraft industry and aviation in general are experiencing personnel shortages, he asserted. “As much as the marketing groups would like people to believe, fully autonomous aircraft will not happen in the initial stages of AAM. Knowing that autonomous ground vehicles continue to have random issues, it's reasonable to expect the FAA to require safety pilots on aircraft until they have a proven safety record. The shortage of pilots and maintenance personnel will likely remain an issue as the AAM industry works to prove itself. We remain concerned about workforce development for our industry, so our Board of Directors has established a working group to address the issue. We'd be interested in working with AAM and eVTOL operators on this topic, establishing programs to interest students and other qualified populations in aviation careers with significant potential for salaries and advancement.”
On the corporate side of the community, Dr. Michael Romanowski, Head of Government Relations at Archer Aviation, noted in the near-term it’s critical that the FAA maintains strong support of certification programs for aircraft and operations. “In addition, the FAA must ensure that necessary updates to the regulatory environment, like those needed to enable eVTOL aircraft operations and pilot qualification, are completed on schedule. Myself and the team at Archer look forward to working with the FAA to facilitate approvals of aircraft operating routes and landing sites for our initial entry into service.”
And what about other federal-level actions, for instance, implementing a national US AMM “czar,” establishing a federal “seed money” fund to support the emerging market, and such?
HAI’s Viola offered that the overall structure of the FAA is in good shape to accommodate the certification process for eVTOL and AAM airframes, pilots and mechanics, and infrastructure. The association leader concluded: “Still, I think they will need more people to meet the potential demand for this form of transportation. I see no reason to believe that eVTOL or AAM flight operations would fall outside FAA FAR Part 135 standards, so many regulations should remain the same.”
Archer’s Romanowski replied that the federal government should view electric aircraft and UAM deployment as a national priority. He concluded, “All-electric, eVTOL aircraft offer safe, sustainable, low-noise and community-friendly solutions to some of the existing transportation problems arising from congested metro areas. The federal government should champion the public and environmental benefits of UAM by supporting infrastructure investments through such means as grants, incentives, and streamlined environmental review and approvals.”
“The Inevitable Future"
A statement by a BETA Technologies spokesperson provided to CAT noted, “Electric aviation is the inevitable future, and over the past few years the industry has proven that this exciting future is closer than we think. This is not just an environmental issue, but a national security and competitiveness one, and it will require a group effort from government, regulators, developers, and buyers to bring this technology to viability. It was great to see the White House pull together folks from across the industry, and we're looking forward to continuing to work together toward a sustainable future.”