Jim Sherman joined the Vertical Flight Society (VFS) earlier this year as the director of strategic development. Coming to VFS from SAE International, where he served as the lead event developer for aerospace and automotive technology, Sherman now has a special focus on the eVTOL space — what VFS describes as “The Electric VTOL Revolution.”
VFS has been supporting eVTOL development for years with events like its annual Electric VTOL Symposium, which is next scheduled for Jan. 21-23 in San Jose, California. Before that, however, the society is sponsoring a special Workshop on eVTOL Defining Challenges on Sept. 10-12 in Washington, D.C. Closed to media, the workshop will bring together industry and regulators for forthright discussions on some of the hardest problems in urban air mobility (UAM), centered around the topics of system safety, infrastructure, and airspace management. VFS now has more than 70 corporate members working in the eVTOL/UAM space, and solving these problems will be critical to the success of this new industry.
I recently spoke with Sherman to learn more about the workshop and its goals — and why anyone with an interest in urban air mobility should plan on attending. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
eVTOL.com: So how did the idea for the workshop come about?
Jim Sherman: VFS has been working on eVTOL, transformative vertical flight since 2013; including working with Uber Elevate and some of the other early adopters. We’ve promoted the industry as a next-generation transportation system. As that momentum has built, we’ve recognized that this industry is going to be taking shape and going into service here in the next few years. And we identified that there are several important areas that are not yet prepared — in some cases not even aware that this is happening.
So we formed a small committee to just look at, what things are still lacking? And we said, let’s put together a program where we can get the right heads in the room and say, all right, this is how we do it today, but in the future when we’re doing electric VTOL, it’s going to be different: certification for one, flight operations for another, infrastructure for third. We came to an agreement that we would put together a workshop that covered three topics — infrastructure, air traffic management, and systems safety — and get regulators, standards bodies, and other organizations that have a vested interest in either [the industry’s] success or its governing, and make sure that they are aware of what the differences will be so that we can start working those needed items to make sure that when the time comes, we are prepared and ready for this market to take off.
eVTOL.com: I noticed that you’ve divided these topics up over three separate days. Can you talk about that format and what you’re planning on tackling each day?
J.S.: Sure. So we did intentionally break up the three separate topics across three different days. On the first day we are going to tackle infrastructure. We’ll start with laying out the groundwork for what is currently in the system — so what helipads, heliports, and other kinds of infrastructure already exist; what kind of code, what kind of regulation is already in place. And then we’ll break into a discussion defining necessary standards, regulations and policy for vertiports. In the afternoon we’re going to try to get into some other topics, including hazard detection; weather operations, especially in microclimate weather; and more on flight operations and air navigation. One very exciting thing we will have in the afternoon is that we will unveil a study we have been working on with NEXA.
On the second day we’re going to break into more of the air traffic side [beginning with] a baseline of how air traffic is managed today for helicopters and general aviation. Then later in the morning we’ll get into a discussion of how eVTOL or UAM participates in this airspace, starting with NASA’s UAM Grand Challenge. And then we’ll transition into some safety management discussions, as well as airspace definition, flight space, flight path spacing.
We’ve invited a number of standards bodies and other organizations to come in and talk about the activities that they have going on, such as GAMA, ASTM and SAE And then we’ll close out the day with some discussions on noise. We’ll have Uber’s perspective on that, as well as discussion on public acceptance and current noise standards versus methods of measurements for ambient noise research. The last thing we’ll talk about is the passenger experience.
The third day is going to be all about system safety for vehicles. We’ll have the International System Safety Society come in and lay a baseline for us on certification of today’s vehicles. Then we’ll break into a risk framework for defining UAM. We’ll look at identifying gaps and overlaps where we need some additional guidance and future research. The last part of the day is going to be more discussions on accidents. We’ve invited the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team to come in and talk about the current state of accidents and causes, mostly for rotorcraft, and some insights that are based on new product introductions. These are going to be things like, have avionics with various different warnings reduced controlled flight into terrain accidents?
eVTOL.com: It sounds like a pretty full program.
J.S.: Yeah, it’s going to be a pretty intense three days.
eVTOL.com: What type of discussions are you wanting to have, and what expectations and attitudes do you want attendees to have in terms of how freely they’re able to speak and brainstorm ideas?
J.S.: So, the intention is to baseline where we’re at today and outline a vision of what we want for the future — especially for this UAM eVTOL market — and identify what the steps are for us to get there. It will be moderated discussion, so we’re asking speakers to lead a discussion, and be concise with the presentations.
The idea is that everybody comes in with the attitude that this is a market that’s going to happen, and be constructive and productive towards reaching that goal. We expect that the discussion will be open and candid, and we’re not asking anybody to temper their words, but at least make them constructive so that it’s not attacking any particular members of the audience. The idea is that we come out of there with a good portion of the audience having an action item to go work on — to go back and volunteer to work on some of these activities and make sure that when 2023 rolls around [Uber’s target date for commercial air taxi operations], we have something in place and we’ve got the necessary tools to ensure a safe and successful launch.
eVTOL.com: What are some of the things that you’d like to come out of the conference with, in terms tangible deliverables for going forward or just setting the stage for the next phase of this Electric VTOL Revolution?
J.S.: Well, step one would be recognition from the FAA of some of the work they have to do in either adjusting their current policies and regulations, or defining new ones. These vehicles don’t fall into either [Federal Aviation Regulations] part 23 or part 27 as written, and they certainly shouldn’t be certified as experimental. These are going to be real vehicles. So we need to find a place for them. The other side of this is ensuring that whatever the FAA decides to do, we have the standards, and the recommendations, and the analysis frameworks in place, so that people can easily, but appropriately and safely, get their vehicles certified and their operations up and running.
We want to make sure that everything’s in place for a safe introduction, whether that’s standards, whether that’s policy, whether that’s guidelines and regulations — all of those things. We want most people to come out with some sort of action item to do. The intention is that those that have a stake in this industry need to be present here in one form or another, because it’s a community and it only works when the community comes together.
For more about the eVTOL Defining Challenges Workshop and to register, visit vtol.org/dc.