NASA has received a budget increase for its Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) National Campaign, campaign lead Starr Ginn revealed during a recent discussion hosted by the Vertical Flight Society (VFS).
“We just got a budget increase to the national campaign, and to some new autonomy projects under advanced air mobility, to bring NASA’s research to bear for our own flight campaigns to show the integration of the airspace service provider, the secure and robust nature of a command-and-control link to communicate with the vehicle, and then the vehicle automation,” Ginn said during a discussion hosted by VFS on Oct. 8. An agency spokesperson was not able to offer any additional information regarding the amount, purpose, or projects affected.
As eVTOL manufacturers, infrastructure developers, and other stakeholders await guidance from regulators on airspace and aircraft safety and compliance, the National Campaign is feeding the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the data it needs to answer questions surrounding the new technology, aircraft and operations involved in urban air mobility.
“The partnership between NASA and the FAA is really great in that . . . NASA is bringing the technical design of experiments arena that’s providing empirical data to inform that evolutionary standard and policy that the FAA will need to implement,” Ginn said, describing the approach as “anchor and evolve” — testing vehicle performance and operational requirements against existing standards to measure the resulting deviations and where there is a need for new standards.
On the issue of energy reserves, for example, Ginn said her team is examining contingencies to understand what scenarios should be factored into requirements. Currently, helicopters operating under visual flight rules are required to hold at least 20 minutes of reserve fuel; with eVTOL aircraft mostly designed to use significantly more energy in vertical flight than in cruise, defining those requirements becomes more complicated.
“That’s why we’re looking at so many contingencies, not only for vehicle performance, crosswind capabilities, and the micro-climate complex but to understand what do we bucket in the reserves? A balked landing and a missed approach? A loiter pattern? How long is a loiter pattern or a balked landing to a vertiport or to another helipad? How far away is that? All those things are going to be brand new for us to understand,” said Ginn.
Ginn’s team is preparing to begin operational tests using helicopters at first, hoping its vehicle partners will be able to provide eVTOLs for performance analysis in the near future. In March, NASA announced agreements with 17 companies to participate through airspace management activities, vehicle information exchange, and as vehicle partners. Joby Aviation is still listed as the only confirmed vehicle partner, though a NASA “partner status” graphic suggests three more interested vehicle partners.
Ginn said her team is also analyzing commercial-off-the-shelf technologies, such as for navigation, to understand where improvements must be made to reach the operational density and vehicle spacing targets the industry hopes to achieve in the longer term.
“If we’re really looking at precision [flight], closely spaced and routes down to the ground, we are already realizing that we’re going to have to get some more precise tools in place for that, understanding what the current COTS onboard flight management systems’ [area navigation] accuracies are and whether they are accurate enough to handle like a two-mile loiter versus something more of the fixed-wing IFR [instrument flight rules] nature.”
NASA also recently launched an online portal to organize the activities of its AAM ecosystem working groups with the aim of creating “a more streamlined and effective resource for the AAM ecosystem.” NASA’s four working groups — aircraft, airspace, community integration and “crosscutting,” on issues that span all three categories — are intended to foster open discussion of challenges and accelerate industry development.