The fiscal year 2024 Congressional hearings continue with a major difference from last year’s sessions: US Senate and US House members and their staffs are receiving an expanded perspective on aviation topics from a broad roster of industry and government executives, and subject matter experts on key technology, policy and business niches. 

Group Editor Marty Kauchak monitored the proceedings as the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation convened a full committee hearing on Advanced Air Mobility: The Future of Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Beyond.

Four of the witnesses providing high-level and more in-depth insights on future-leaning aviation technologies and systems appearing before this committee included: 

  • Kevin Welsh, Executive Director, Office of Environment and Energy, Federal Aviation Administration;
  • Robert A. Pearce, Associate Administrator, NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate;
  • Jon Gordon, Co-Founder, General Counsel and Head of Partnerships and Government Affairs, Universal Hydrogen; and
  • Dr. Val Miftakhov, Founder and CEO, ZeroAvia.

Beyond a Safe Aerospace System 

An editorial subject of increasing prominence in CAT’s editorial program is the aviation training enterprise’s emerging activities to support the commercial airline industry’s efforts to address the environmental impacts of aviation around the globe.      

While the FAA’s core mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world, the administration’s Office of Environment and Energy is focusing on a wide array of environmental impacts of aviation, such as climate change, local air quality, and noise. Executive Director Welsh told the committee his office is following the National Aeronautics Science and Technology Priorities and US Aviation Climate Action Plan to help the Biden Administration’s commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the aviation sector by 2050. 

“To achieve this, we are working with industry and other important aviation stakeholders to develop new technologies, enable increased production of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), increase the energy efficiency of air traffic operations, and conduct research and develop tools to support the FAA’s mission,” Welsh’s prepared remarks stated.

He added, “Our work in these areas not only helps address environmental impacts, but can also reduce costs, such as through reduced fuel burn, and supports job growth and economic development.” 

In a nod to the prospect of eVTOLs and other next-generation aircraft in the national airspace, the FAA official noted an important aspect of the quest to reduce aviation emissions and noise is the development of new technologies to power aircraft, such as hydrogen or electric propulsion systems: “As the FAA works to certify aircraft that seek to use these technologies, safety will always be the agency’s first priority.”

NASA’s R&D and Test Focus 

NASA’s Pearce indicated his organization’s aeronautics programs focus on research, development, and testing of aviation technology advancements that will benefit humankind and retain US leadership in a vital manufacturing and transportation sector. 

The executive noted the President's Fiscal Year 2024 budget request proposes $996 million for NASA Aeronautics efforts “that will transform aviation in four key areas: 

  • ultra-efficient aircraft, 
  • high-speed commercial flight, 
  • advanced air mobility, and 
  • a safe national airspace system made more sustainable through collaborative digital technologies.” 

One technology thrust Pearce highlighted for the committee is NASA’s efforts to enable a transformation in how people and goods move around communities and regions through research and demonstration of Advanced Air Mobility concepts and technologies. 

He added, “With more than 80 industry partners, and close engagement with the FAA, NASA is exploring new vehicles and vehicle operations, airspace design and operations, and community integration solutions to enable a sustainable advanced air mobility system that supports US economic growth and benefits the public through missions including cargo/medical deliveries, disaster response, and on-demand passenger service. NASA is broadly sharing knowledge gained through development and testing of the all-electric X-57 Maxwell aircraft to inform standards and regulations for small electric aircraft that will be common in the AAM environment.”

Seeking a Voice and Parity

Electric, hybrid, hydrogen, and sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are competing to be propulsion sources for next-generation aircraft. Enter Jon Gordon, co-founder and general counsel of Universal Hydrogen. The executive pointed out that, earlier this month, Universal Hydrogen achieved the historic first flight of a 40-seat Dash-8 regional aircraft. 

“This flight represents the largest aircraft ever to fly powered with a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain, and is also the largest aircraft ever to fly principally on hydrogen power,” he emphasized, and added, “Universal Hydrogen is on track to enter commercial service as early as 2025.” 

Gordon also told the committee, “Airline interest in our aircraft retrofits has been overwhelming. We now have partnerships with 16 different airlines across 12 different countries, and commitments for over 250 aircraft. Within a decade you will see our hydrogen-powered aircraft flying in nearly every region on earth.” 

Opining there is not a “level playing field” for the introduction of hydrogen fuel into the future US civil aviation sector, Gordon asserted, “We need a hydrogen, hybrid and electric aviation task force that can work together to prepare for future aviation platforms, and will be isolated from the entrenched status quo interests who only see SAF as worthy of consideration and funding.”

Hydrogen-Electric Solutions 

ZeroAvia is developing hydrogen-electric engines – essentially fuel cell systems which 

use hydrogen to create electricity and power electric motors, with the only emission being water vapor. Miftakhov told the committee, “We anticipate this to be the most environmentally friendly and most economically attractive solution for operators long-term,” and later added, “For a holistic solution, the answer must be electric propulsion powered cleanly and effectively through hydrogen fuel cells. This technology eliminates CO2, NO2, SOx, and soot; its only emission is the water vapor by-product of the fuel-cell. 

And, it is scalable, as ZeroAvia has been demonstrating. Indeed, in September 2020, ZeroAvia flew a 6-seat aircraft equipped with a 250-kilowatt powertrain, the largest hydrogen-electric aircraft ever flown at that time. In January of this year, ZeroAvia flew a 19-seat aircraft with its ZA600 engine. Of significance, the corporate leader noted, “we have already begun ground-testing our next step forward, the 2-to-5 megawatt ZA2000 for larger aircraft. By 2027, you can expect to see 40-80 passenger commercial aircraft flying with these powertrains. The same ZA2000 powertrain will be quickly adapted to power regional jets.” 

A Q&A Highlight

An interesting exchange occurred during the session’s Q&A period between Committee Ranking member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and a fifth witness, Marc Scribner, Senior Transportation Policy Analyst, Reason Foundation, on the future of the US air traffic system. Cruz pointedly asked Scribner, “In your opinion, is the current air traffic control system capable of managing these new aviation technologies [eVTOLs and others] in our airspace?” 

The senior analyst responded, “At the volumes and the operations, the timelines suggested by many of the developers of those technologies, I would say no. And that is particularly true with small, unmanned aircraft systems, advanced air mobility that call for a large increase in total aircraft in the airspace.” 

In a follow-up question the senator asked, “What has been the impediment. They’ve been working on NextGen for about 20 years.” 

Scribner replied, “I believe the problem is the separate issues of inconsistent funding, the strong risk-aversion that we have within FAA’s air traffic organization – it’s related to governance. A lot of the other countries have moved away from the traditional combined regulator-air navigation service provider model that’s been with us since the beginning of aviation.”     

Training Implications

The imminent introduction of newly designed aircraft with electric, hybrid and hydrogen propulsion into commercial service in the US is gathering speed. This development and other trends, including the proliferation of UASs and other aircraft in the US airspace, has important implications for aviation training enterprises preparing the next generation of pilots, maintainers and other professionals across the civil aviation industry – as it will no longer be business as usual.

Hearing Link - A link to the entire committee hearing is available here.