Political differences are being set aside to establish 2022 as the year the White House and Capitol Hill created the policy and legislative foundations for the rapidly evolving US Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) sector. While this journey’s milestones have been incremental, the pace of activities is quickening.
In June, members of the US House of Representatives established the bipartisan Congressional Advanced Air Mobility Caucus. The caucus is intended to ensure continued US leadership in the sustainable future of flight and educate members in the Senate and House about revolutionary AAM technology.
In an attention-getting event this August, the White House convened the first ever US AAM policy summit.
Concurrently, high-level legislative efforts were winding their way through the halls of Capitol Hill, which culminated 17 October with President Biden signing Senate bill 516, the “Advanced Air Mobility Coordination and Leadership Act”. The legislation, which consolidated a companion House bill, requires the Secretary of Transportation to establish an advanced air mobility interagency working group to: review and examine factors that will allow the maturation of the AAM ecosystem within the US and develop an AAM National Strategy.
Voices of Diverse Stakeholders
One AAM industry perspective on the significance of the recently signed AAM Act was obtained from Greg Bowles, Head of Government and Regulatory Affairs at Joby Aviation. The executive first pointed out that many eVTOL designs, including Joby’s, have been created to fit into today’s aviation system but with the ability to provide even greater benefit as the aviation system is adapted for the future. He continued, “The Advanced Air Mobility Coordination and Leadership Act was created by Congress to assure that early leaders like Joby can integrate smoothly into the existing aviation system without delay and the learnings from these initial operations can be used to inform the key agencies (DoT [Department of Transportation], DoE [Department of Energy], DoD [Department of Defense], etc.). While the early days of advanced air mobility will make use of existing airports and heliports and the traditional air traffic control system, over time evolving the NAS [National Airspace System] will assure the US can continue to lead the next century of aviation.”
Clint Harper, Urban Air Mobility Fellow at Urban Movement Labs, offered that the recently signed act was a major opportunity to “dismantle legacy silos.” The community veteran initially explained, “We believe that at the federal level, alongside the Federal Aviation Administration, at a minimum, there should be representatives from the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration involved,” and continued, “In the United States, transportation decisions have historically traded one transportation innovation for another without thinking holistically.
“For example, in Los Angeles' history, we once had an expansive light rail transit network and urban air mobility in the form of a regional helicopter airline. How different would the region be if we worked to integrate each one within a holistic transportation system instead of abandoning ‘older’ technology?
“State departments of transportation, including their aeronautics divisions, and other intermodal experts, also need to be consulted. At the local level, the ‘go-to’ departments will be airport authorities and DOTs, but many different departments and agencies will ultimately inform the decision-making process. We cannot forget the critical role of land use planners in creating policy, particularly concerning privately developed infrastructure. Economic development organizations, emergency management, and energy utility providers are also crucial.”
When asked some of the early, major challenges facing the soon-to-be established Secretary of Transportation-sponsored working group, Harper said, “Community members must have a voice in decision-making, which highlights a critical need for planning and outreach resources at the local level.” The subject matter expert continued, “AAM strategies must address all existing and emerging use cases to understand how AAM will integrate [Mr. Harper’s emphasis] within the transportation system as an equitable intervention. Further, the industry must work with communities to communicate AAM benefits, risks, and impact honestly. Communities must understand who stands to benefit and who stands to be affected by negative externalities. Community feedback can help mitigate risk, but equally important, to ensure an equitable distribution of benefits across all use cases.”
The Devil in the Details
Several early takeaways can be gleaned from the early US AAM ecosystem construct. In one case, this embryonic sector will advance through a whole-of-government strategy, with federal participants to certainly include the FAA, the Pentagon, the Commerce Department and others – in addition to state and local governments. As these government activities advance, there will be the imperative to continue an active outreach to, and involvement of, industry, associations and other stakeholders, especially as operator certification, training standards, and other details are established.
Beyond lofty policy and legislative activities, the sector will move forward through much more focused, detailed programs, including budgets for the FAA, DoD and other entities that will provide initial and recurring investments for developing operator standards and other purposes, including public sector eVTOL procurement.