The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects to award a type certificate to an advanced air mobility (AAM) aircraft sometime this year, Jay Merkle, executive director of the agency’s UAS Integration Office, told attendees of the Vertical Flight Society’s annual Electric VTOL Symposium.
“Based on where we see projects, probably our first [urban or advanced air mobility] aircraft to get certified will happen sometime this year, and we’ve got probably two or three others right behind them,” Merkle said. “Based on those companies’ projections, they really want to begin operations by 2023 — those are more testing operations — and really commercial for-fee services around 2024.”
Merkle did not clarify what qualifies as an urban air mobility (UAM) or AAM aircraft, though he appeared to view the segment as distinct from small unmanned aircraft, or drones. Fixed-wing electric aircraft such as Bye Aerospace’s two-seat eFlyer 2 may be likely candidates for type certification earlier than eVTOL designs. While the eFlyer 2 is primarily conceived as a trainer, at least one UAM hopeful, Quantum XYZ, has ambitions to use eFlyer aircraft for urban passenger transport.
The FAA is engaged with more than 30 companies in this segment on aircraft certification and seven on engine certification, Merkle added. So far, the agency does not see “any major impediment based on our current regulatory structure” that would prevent initial AAM operations from commencing.
“Particularly because the applicants that we’ve seen, their operations tend to be very close to manned operations — a high degree of commonality with operations in Part 91 today — [we don’t see a] need to change the rules and potentially very little need for waivers or exemptions,” Merkle said.
At least, initially. The V1.0 concept of operations proposed by the FAA last year centers on evolving current helicopter routes into UAM corridors, an approach that Merkle admitted is not scalable.
“The corridor concept is not a scalable concept for high-volume, so we will have to figure out some way other than corridors,” Merkle said. “Corridors are great for aircraft that need to transit airspace infrequently, understanding that the traffic in that area typically gets priority. Those constructs just don’t work for highly-scalable, high-density UAM or AAM.”
As operations become more advanced, Merkle expects to run into issues of airspace integration and equity; traditional operators are unlikely to yield their positions in dense airspace, creating problems for scaled operations that — as ConOps released by both FAA and NASA point out — will likely require technology and architectures that necessarily exclude older aircraft and operational modalities.
Right now, the FAA’s focus is on getting the 30-plus aircraft and engine concepts through the certification process, Merkle said. Based on industry roundtables, he urged industry to tackle a few tough challenges: clarifying the role of the human as it relates to automation and creating more standardization and coalescence around vehicle design characteristics. The latter is a workload issue for the FAA; if the agency is forced to work on more than a dozen highly differentiated aircraft designs simultaneously, progress will be slower.
Merkle also communicated a need for greater emphasis on airworthiness, particularly in projects and designs that evolve out of the drone sector than the manned aviation space.
“In terms of AAM, we are viewing [those aircraft] as the same level of safety as any other passenger aircraft or any other manned aviation,” Merkle said. “We believe the societal expectations for these aircraft is that they will operate like any other Part 21 or 23 aircraft with Part 91 operations.”