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NASA prepares for advanced air mobility ‘dry run’ flight test

NASA has launched flight testing activities for its Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) National Campaign (NC), laying the groundwork for a developmental test with Joby Aviation’s prototype eVTOL air taxi next year.

NASA AAM dry run helicopter
This Bell OH-58C Kiowa helicopter will be used as an eVTOL stand-in for a “dry run” series of urban air mobility flight tests at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. Flight Research Inc. Photo

On Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, a NASA TG-14 glider was used to perform connectivity and infrastructure flight tests at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. According to NASA, in addition to assessing automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) connectivity to the cloud and data processing system, these flights served as a familiarization exercise for the test pilots who will fly the same routes during the next phase of testing, called the NC Integrated Dry Run Test.

That phase will begin in December, using a Bell OH-58C Kiowa helicopter from Flight Research Inc. of Mojave, California. The Kiowa will act as a surrogate urban air mobility (UAM) vehicle, providing a data baseline for future flight testing. During this exercise, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Flight Research Inc. test pilots will fly the helicopter in ways that mimic the anticipated operations of urban air taxis, including flying terminal operations with representative real-time eVTOL flight plans and trajectories while testing interactions with a third-party airspace service provider.

“The dry run is NASA testing our flight test infrastructure which consists of range safety, instrumentation, airspace integration and data collection,” stated Starr Ginn, AAM National Campaign lead, in a press release. “As the NASA subsystems mature, they will be tested at different phases of the dry run series where the final test in March will test the full end-to-end system.”

The dry run will set the stage for the Developmental Test with Joby in 2021, which will help define the flight scenarios to be tested by multiple eVTOL developers during NC-1 in 2022. For NC-1, industry partners will focus on demonstrating integrated operations through flight activities with vehicles and third-party airspace service providers at various locations in the national airspace system around the country.

“The National Campaign is trying to verify the gaps in the current FAA standards that scaling eVTOLs operations can’t yet meet,” Ginn said. “We are putting these vehicles through the FAA standards for operations that currently exist. That is our measuring stick.”

NASA AAM markings
In anticipation of flight testing for the AAM National Campaign, vertiports and helipads were painted at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in October. NASA/Ken Ulbrich Photo

NASA describes this approach as “anchor and evolve”: anchoring its testing in current FAA standards for helicopters, then evolving those standards to enable safe operations of eVTOL aircraft.

“The industry and world will see we are not creating something new; we are evolving standards so urban air mobility can become a viable market,” explained Dave Webber, FAA research flight test engineer and vehicle characteristics principal investigator for the project.

The AAM National Campaign is conceived as a series of increasingly complex flight demonstrations to evaluate the readiness of novel eVTOL aircraft and airspace management systems. Originally called the UAM Grand Challenge, it was rebranded in March 2020 to encompass scenarios beyond urban air taxi operations, which nevertheless remain a core focus of the campaign.

Seventeen companies are actively collaborating with NASA on the developmental test phase of the campaign, although Joby is the only one scheduled to fly a vehicle during this phase. On Nov. 16, NASA announced two additional vehicle partners for NC-1: Wisk, which has already completed more than 1,400 test flights of its autonomous Cora eVTOL; and Alaka’i Technologies, developer of the hydrogen fuel cell-powered Skai.

NASA and the FAA said they intend to collaborate throughout all stages of the National Campaign, which will inform the FAA’s development of policies and procedures for the emerging AAM industry. Last month, NASA’s Starr Ginn reported that the National Campaign had recently received a budget increase, signaling institutional support for the project.

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