The US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Space & Aeronautics Subcommittee convened a hearing on Advanced Air Mobility: The Future of Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Beyond. Group Editor Marty Kauchak monitored the proceedings. 

Congressional hearings are in full swing. Subject matter insights and perspectives on a wide-range of AAM and UAS topics were conveyed to the House’s Space & Aeronautics Subcommittee members during a scheduled hearing. An extract of witness comments are provided here from: 

  • Dr. Jamey Jacob, Executive Director, Oklahoma Institute for Research and Education and Williams Chair in Energy and Professor of Aerospace Engineering, Oklahoma State University; 
  • Dr. Parimal Kopardekar, Director, NASA Aeronautics Research Institute; 
  • Lisa Ellman, Executive Director, Commercial Drone Alliance; and 
  • Sean Casey, Chief Research and Development Engineer, AirWise Solutions and Adjunct Professor, System Safety and Reliability Analysis at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology.

The four expert witnesses discussed themes and topics familiar to readers of CAT and MS&T, including industry workforce recruitment and retention, the imperative to build upon current congressional legislation supporting the emerging commercial aviation technologies and others. Yet, a more persistent, overarching theme emerged: the need for a robust, more assertive role of government to help the AAM industry advance – providing support in terms of continued, focused research and development funding, regulatory relief and, above all, a safe, integrated national airspace.       

Bridging the ‘Valley of Death’

Dr. Jacob emphasized that his institute and the university are engaged in internal and collaborative efforts in education, research, outreach and AAM system applications for public use in agriculture, energy, environmental monitoring and other missions, and defense. He added, “We have used this technology to help spur interest in aerospace and other STEM careers, particularly for K-12 outreach, underrepresented minorities including those in urban areas, leveraging programs within the Choctaw, Cherokee and Osage nations of Oklahoma and provide new opportunities to allow tribal members to develop new entrepreneurial activities within their folders.”

Jacob was one of several witnesses to note his institution’s interest in concurrently developing, in collaboration with industry and other entities, counter-UAS capabilities and technologies to support the US Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. 

The academic leader further noted “federal support has been a catalyst to enable this use of applied research. Government funding has been a powerful driver in moving technology from the laboratory into end-user adoption crossing the ‘valley of death’ that many innovations never bridge.” 

Jacob was also quick to present other returns on investment from federal support in the nascent AAM sector, including the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma test site, part of the FAA’s BEYOND program, that is helping to develop scalable, reputable and economically feasible beyond-visual-line-of-site operations and other sector capabilities. 

The community leader was one of several witnesses to throw down the gauntlet, so to speak, by advocating for an assertive role of government to help AAM mature, along with establishing other partnerships. “We need the federal government’s support to ensure that these technologies flourish and provide the benefits to all Americans that we know are possible.”   

Safety Focus and Other Outcomes

Noting there’s a major global aviation transformation underway, Dr. Kopardekar said the community must significantly and concurrently “look at aviation by maintaining its safety tradition.” The NASA executive provided several attention-getting datum points on the potential impact of the AAM sector, noting a 2021 AIA and Deloitte study opined the US AAM market could reach $115 billion annually by 2035. 

For its part, NASA, along with the FAA and other government stakeholders and industry partners, are helping expand the early technology envelope for the market, in one instance by developing a joint unmanned aircraft traffic management (UTM) research plan to document research objectives and map out the development of UTM. “The UTM will safely enable high-speed operations of tomorrow’s drones in low-altitude airspace,” he said, and noted other NASA-specific and collaborative AAM technology thrusts have included airspace integration, aircraft noise, safety and community acceptance. 

Kopardekar continued: “Over the next several years we will conduct demonstrations (national campaigns) presenting how the entire air system will work.” And beyond advancing AAM technology maturation, NASA is also focused on working to increase the presence and retention of minority groups in the future AAM industry. He noted that, following the tenets of the 2022 “Advanced Air Mobility Coordination and Leadership Act,” NASA is and will remain a full partner in the US whole-of-government strategy to advance AAM.       

Bold Congressional Help Needed

Lisa Ellman, Commercial Drone Alliance, echoed an important theme of other hearing witnesses, when she noted the commercial drone industry is delivering significant life-saving societal and economic benefits for all Americans. While the organization leader noted drones are fighting wildfires, they are also responding to rail derailment and other disasters, and enhancing public safety. “Drones are democratizing aviation by opening the industry to a broader workforce, creating jobs and boosting our economy,” Ellman added. 

In a challenge to Congress, the alliance director asserted, “Regulatory paralysis has limited the integration of UASs into the national airspace.” While Congress in 2012 mandated the integration of UAS into the national airspace, Ellman pointed out that 11 years later, “that mandate remains unfulfilled, as drones are often subject to application of incongruent regulations designed for crewed aircraft. Despite the best efforts of many, the FAA continued to view UAS integration in its own words, ‘A long road ahead and a significant challenge.’” 

Noting the inability of some companies to gain access into the AAM market by pursuing opportunities in non-US markets, she concluded, “Bold and decisive congressional leadership is necessary once again for progress. Research and development have a critical role to play here, but it has been difficult for many US companies under the existing framework.”            

Accelerate the AAM Industry 

Casey provided a vital industry perspective of the AAM sector for committee members and their staffs. From a defense and homeland security perspective, the community expert cited the role of UASs in the Ukraine-Russia war as a force multiplier. The witness called attention to the dual-use of some technologies used in military-purposed UASs helping to drive a renaissance in the commercial UAS market. In one instance, multi-spectral cameras were noted to also be in use in the agriculture, oil and gas industry and other non-defense purposes. 

Casey, drawing upon his background in medium-size business and other endeavors, asked the congressional members to recall that the US UAS industry has a strong history of originating as “hobbyist”, “tinkerers”, “garage shops” and even innovative or efficient (but often underfunded) startups. “It will be up to this committee to accelerate them into a commercial industry.”     

View the Full Hearing

The entire subcommittee hearing may be viewed below.