The emergent U.S. eVTOL industry is facing a shortage of engineering talent that is poised to become worse in coming years, according to the Vertical Flight Society (VFS).
In a new white paper, VFS predicts that the country’s demand for vertical lift scientists and engineers will expand tenfold over the next two decades, driven by the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) modernization effort as well as the rapidly growing eVTOL and urban air mobility industry. The technical society is calling on the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and NASA to significantly expand sustained, long-term research grants “to proactively address the growing workforce requirement and ensure U.S. competitive edge in the vertical lift industry.”
“There’s a critical supply shortage that’s hitting the industry already, and that’s talent,” said VFS executive director Mike Hirschberg, who led a panel discussion on eVTOL workforce development during the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime virtual launch event on May 1.
“The workforce is one of those critical bottlenecks that’s going to prevent us from reaching the future we want, if the talent pipeline is not very soon ramped up, because it’s a zero-sum game,” he continued, highlighting the poaching of top talent that is already widespread in the eVTOL industry.
VFS is advocating for expanded investment in the country’s existing Vertical Lift Research Centers of Excellence (VLRCOEs) — a program originally established in 1982 to grow academic research and graduate education in a number of multi-disciplinary research areas critical to vertical lift technology.
The present VLRCOE program comprises three university centers led by the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Maryland, which have established partnerships with 18 other universities, primarily in the U.S. Currently, the U.S. Army, Navy, and NASA collaboratively fund the VLRCOE program at about $4.6 million per year across all the participating institutions, a funding amount that has actually decreased over the past 38 years both in actual and inflation-adjusted values.
The VFS white paper contends that increasing funding to existing VLRCOEs and partner institutions could increase the number of vertical lift engineering graduates in “a fairly rapid manner.” In the longer term, the number of lead institutions in the program could be expanded. By simultaneously creating new initiatives for near-term disruptive research, this effort could help break through some of the principal barriers to eVTOL aircraft, notably through the development of “clean, quiet, and compact electric power,” the paper states.
The paper calls on the DoD and NASA to assume leadership of this effort, and to seek active participation by the U.S. Air Force, whose Agility Prime initiative aims to catalyze development of the commercial eVTOL industry.
“The great thing about this is that we already have a lot of great infrastructure that we can use here; we don’t have to start from scratch,” said Georgia Tech VLRCOE director Marilyn Smith during the Agility Prime workforce development panel. “We believe it’s cost-effective to build upon the VLRCOE infrastructure, both the centers and all of our partners, and there’s no reason why other universities can’t join in with their specialties.”
Professor Farhan Gandhi of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute suggested that increasing funding by a targeted $18 million per year could result in up to 100 additional master’s and PhD-level engineers entering the VTOL/eVTOL workforce. These graduates with advanced education in the challenges specific to vertical flight would be “linchpins” in the industry, around whom engineers with undergraduate degrees could work to meet total workforce needs, he said.
The VFS white paper’s projections don’t account for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, “which is taking a tremendous toll in aviation and in the aerospace industry in general,” pointed out another panelist, professor Carlos Cesnik of the University of Michigan. “So maybe part of the needed eVTOL talent would come from shifting engineers from other aerospace sectors in the short term — we’ll see more about that.”
Either way, he said, training the eVTOL technical workforce of the future will demand not only additional resources, but also a multi-disciplinary approach that embraces the unique features of these novel aircraft.
“When designing an advanced aerial mobility system, the level of automation, airspace integration, human-machine interaction, cybersecurity, and ultimately really the proof that the entire integrated system works safely and at a reasonable cost — all of these are as important as the airframe itself and they impact its design.
“The challenge here is that most of these contributing disciplines fall outside most of the aerospace engineering programs,” he continued. “Let us think holistically about the opportunities out there in terms of availability of courses, laboratories, and overall curriculum, so as to leverage the existing expertise and facilities [for] agile and flexible training opportunities and continuing education under the umbrella of universities.”