Ready, set: design; build the AAM vehicle; train operators and maintainers, and then operate. Not so fast? During an HAI Heli-Expo leadership forum, senior executives from across the rapidly moving sector provided candid insights and perspectives on the opportunities and challenges on horizon for the next decade.

Make no mistake, AAM market sector activities are accelerating at a quickening pace, witness the increase in CAT eVTOL department website postings – most recently and others. Tom Muniz, COO at Archer, provided another datum point on the market’s pace of activities when he confirmed for conference delegates that his team is working to place its Midnight eVTOL in operation in 2025. And Melissa Tomkiel, Blade’s President and General Counsel, noted while her company forms partnerships across the community it is also proactively identifying key urban areas/sites and the necessary infrastructure underpinnings to support its future networks.   

Paced, Deliberate Growth

The AAM leaders provided the image of a community that is moving forward safely, deliberately and in a collaborative manner – not at a willy-nilly, frenetic pace that is portrayed in some segments, with Jetson-like cars ready for operation in communities within the next several years. Indeed, Muniz and other panel members emplaced “guardrails,” so to speak, on the fast pace of activities in the market – managing expectations and emphasizing their progress will be incremental with safety and the buy-in of an expanding array of stakeholders in US society.

Dave Stepanek, Executive Vice President at Bristow Group, emphasized the AAM community is advancing as part of arguably a 3rd-4th generation technology revolution, where operations and progress are occurring with data-driven strategies, collaboration and other efforts. The industry veteran made an important pronouncement that resonated well through other presentation comments – that his company will not be replacing its helicopter fleet anytime soon, with its embrace of eVTOLs on a parallel path, and it is building a business model for the average American to fit in.  

Patrick Buckles, Chief Revenue Officer at BETA, said his company’s “biggest, current focus is how to bring BETA to market safely.” He added, “We need to share real-life data – all of this, and proceed with the FAA,” among other actions. BETA has an interesting business model that is also being advanced at many other eVTOL OEMs – a crawl / walk / run strategy that will place its initial tranche of eVTOLs on cargo and medical-type missions, with passenger transport to follow as ecosystem and other capabilities mature.   

The FAA’s Role

The nexus for safe and reliable AAM operations in the US airspace resides squarely at FAA. Yet, there is nothing less than an urgency for FAA to: collaborate with community stakeholders; publish standards for operator training and certification; facilitate the safe, joint use of airspace among different aviation platforms; and achieve other sector underpinnings. 

Indeed, Billy Nolen, Acting FAA Director, told last summer’s While House AAM Summit “more than 860,000 drones are registered today in the United States. To put this into context, that’s more than three times as many crewed aircraft. By 2025, we could have a total of more than 2.6 million commercial and recreational drones flying in our airspace, according to FAA forecasts.” 

Panel member Nick Lento, FAA’s Manager for NextGen, pointed out FAA’s collaboration with community stakeholders to issue standards for new AAM vehicles, allow all classes of vehicles to safely and cooperatively operate in the future US airspace and achieve other necessary outcomes. He emphasized, “We’re taking a building block approach. In terms of eVTOLs. we’re scaling up operations at a future site to know what this key site will look like and then how to build nodes around this and other key sites.”  

The Training Piece

Infrastructure, data-sharing and other technology thrusts aside, at the end of the day the AAM sector will require a trained and mission-ready cadre of pilots and maintainers to support what promises to be burgeoning new vehicle fleets in the US and beyond. 

In one instance, Martin Peryea, Senior VP and GM of Electric Air Mobility at Airo Group, called attention to the S&T industry’s efforts to provide training materiel and services, and noted, in particular, the activities at CAE.

Archer’s Muniz pointed that his company’s partnership with United may help generate one source of community eVTOL pilots, and declared training to be a holistic piece with his company “spooling up a training department.”

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HAI Heli-Expo 2023 AAM panel (left to right): Tom Muniz, COO at Archer; Patrick Buckles, Chief Revenue Officer at BETA; Melissa Tomkiel, Blade’s President and General Counsel; Dave Stepanek, Executive Vice President at Bristow Group; Martin Peryea, Senior VP and GM of Electric Air Mobility at Airo Group. Image credit: Halldale Group/Marty Kauchak.