By Treena Hein

Treena Hein is an award-winning technology, science, and business writer based in Ontario, Canada. She has almost two decades’ experience in outstanding content creation, and prefers to write about emerging technologies, how technologies and industries have evolved, and the intersection of technology with public perceptions, regulatory issues, and other factors.

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When disaster strikes: A look at how eVTOLs can be used to transport life-saving supplies

Major disasters always stretch logistics and resources to their limits. The best we can hope for, whether it’s floods, tornadoes, earthquakes or another type of emergency, is that relief reaches the people who need it the most as soon as possible.

NASA
NASA is working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other groups to brainstorm how to harness the future power of eVTOLs for disaster relief. NASA Image

The good news is that technologies to help with disasters are always evolving — and it’s expected that eVTOL technology will undoubtedly play a role in future disaster relief efforts, for a wide variety of reasons. 

Of course, there’s already a long history of emergency assistance from the air, involving both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. A few years ago, famous Canadian Bill “Father Goose” Lishman designed a foot-release system for ultralight planes to allow pilots to drop off “relief cubes” to those stranded without shelter, food and first aid supplies. Potentially, eVTOLs could do the same, and various types of eVTOLs could also certainly survey damage and pinpoint the location of those in need of help.

But because eVTOLs only need a small take-off and landing area, they can drop off life-saving supplies with more precision, more easily pick people up, serve as communication platforms, and so on. 

NASA takes the lead

NASA is currently working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other groups to brainstorm how to harness the future power of eVTOLs for disaster relief.

NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) Mission, which is aimed at helping emerging aviation markets navigate the development of a new transportation system to transform the way people and goods will move through the skies, includes several projects where experts are looking at this topic from different angles.

As NASA’s System-Wide Safety project manager Dr. Misty Davies noted, eVTOLs will provide many advantages over helicopters during disasters.

“Helicopters take a lot of fuel and specialized maintenance,” she said. “At their best, eVTOLs have reduced maintenance and turnaround time, and also offer cost and noise benefits.”

With some eVTOLs, it will be possible to swap out charged batteries for drained batteries in emergency situations, Davies explained, with another eVTOL ferrying batteries back and forth to a charging station. This would keep the relief eVTOLs in continual operation, which is so critical in emergencies.

Davies also observed that remote piloting of eVTOLs will potentially provide more flexibility in relief than present-day solutions, such as helicopters, and that in rain and windy conditions, eVTOLs should perform well.

She added that, as Lishman had suggested for ultralights, many eVTOLs could be transported to a disaster area in large cargo planes.

Misty Davis
Dr. Misty Davies is NASA’s System-Wide Safety project manager. NASA Image

Designed for emergencies

NASA and its partners are also discussing specific features that could be integrated into eVTOLs to make them even more useful for disaster relief.

“As with any aviation vehicle, the design is responsive to the mission’s requirements,” explained Susan Gorton, project manager of the NASA Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology project. “The advantage of the eVTOL designs for cargo and passenger transport is that they provide a basic platform from which many variants can be produced.”

According to Gorton, the main differences in design between cargo or passenger eVTOLs and eVTOLs dedicated to emergency relief could relate to trading payload for greater range and having faster access to the cargo area, although payloads could be carried external to the configuration in some cases.

Range could be extended by adding more battery capacity or using different propulsion systems. “Hybrid-electric systems could use a combination of turbine engine with a battery and generator or even include a hydrogen fuel cell powering electric motors,” Gorton said.

And while, in her view, “solar panels embedded on the eVTOL platform are not likely to provide primary power to the vehicle, because the area required is too large, portable ground solar systems could be an option for replenishing batteries as part of a battery-swapping scenario.”

Gorton said eVTOLs designed for emergency relief efforts will also likely have advanced sensor packages to support navigation and communications. “In disaster and emergency situations,” she said, “these vehicles will need to operate in environments that could include smoke, or need to fly at night in low visibility conditions. These aircraft may also have to fly in places where global positioning system [GPS] is not available.”  

Automation will be key

Both Davies and Gorton agreed that automation will also be a critical technology in assisting eVTOL pilots or remote pilots, or enabling these aircraft to be operated in fully automated ways during emergencies. Repetitive tasks such as flying the same trajectory multiple times is often needed in disasters, Gorton noted, but because conditions can change rapidly in disaster scenarios, eVTOLs will need systems with sensors and other technology that enable detection of changes and hazards that might appear in the local environment. 

“Sensing of obstacles and whether conditions are safe for landing and take-off will be needed,” she said. “And for operations where multiple vehicles are flying at the same time, vehicles will need to detect and avoid each other, maybe without traditional air traffic control to help them, or as mentioned, without even GPS.”

HADRA viewpoint

The HADRA Expert Group (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response in Aviation) is another party interested in how eVTOLs and other new technologies can improve emergency response. The group is chaired by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and includes members of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. For example, HADRA is currently testing a blockchain tool that will allow humanitarian and aviation stakeholders to have access to timely and reliable information for crisis planning and response. 

Regarding eVTOL use, Thomas Bombaert, ICAO technical officer for remotely-piloted aircraft, noted that many challenges around the introduction of eVTOL operations remain to be addressed in relation to emergency scenarios, including interoperability, airspace integration, rapid authorizations, especially for operators from another country, and transport of eVTOL batteries as air cargo.

He said that when considering the integration of these aircraft within the airspace and across borders, ICAO, as an intergovernmental standard-setting body, will need to ensure that the framework that will enable eVTOL aircraft also equally maintains the current level of safety for all airspace users. “Responding to calls from its member States, ICAO’s governing bodies have recognized that AAM operations, which includes eVTOL operations, is an important item for the organization’s work program of the next triennium, starting in 2023,” Bombaert said.

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