Uber's goal was to have eVTOL demonstrator flights beginning in 2020 and begin commercial operations in three test cities (Los Angeles, California, USA; Dallas, Texas, USA; Melbourne, Australia) by 2030.
But the regulatory process, the standards and technical maturity levels have not advanced as quickly as early proponents anticipated.
For the moment the focus is on government bodies to put in place the necessary arrangement which will allow for the UAM market to develop commercially. In particular, the US Department of Defense (supporting vehicle certification efforts of US eVTOL manufacturers), NASA (researching technology maturity levels) and the Federal Aviation Administration (developing rules and procedures for operations), have key roles to play here.
On 27 April 2020, the US Air Force kicked off its Agility Prime programme which seeks to rapidly transform the US military and civil advanced air mobility industry by jointly forming research development programmes with civil manufacturers of passenger carrying electric VTOL (eVTOL) programmes. One of the main drivers of the programme is to ensure US industry does not cede the technology and industry high ground in this strategic sector to manufacturers from abroad – in the way the small UAS sector has been dominated by Chinese manufacturers.
In the near term, the programme comprises “a rapid contracting mechanism beginning in 2020 with a “Race to Certification” series to drive government procurement”. It wants to acquire fleets of “orbs”, eVTOLs capable of handling a number of military missions, including distributed logistics and sustainment, medical evacuation, firefighting, civil and military disaster relief, search and rescue, and humanitarian relief operations.” The initial generation of orbs is for vehicles able to carry three to eight people at more than 100 mph, flying more than 100 miles, with an endurance of more than one hour. The service is planning the first full-scale flights by December 17, with the goal of a small, operational fleet by 2023.
To help speed the process the USAF will assist developers by providing testing ranges and engineering support on safety issues – FAA certification will be inherent in the development process, according to Roper.
At the end of June 2020 the FAA released an initial Concept of Operations (ConOps) for UAM (https://nari.arc.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/attachments/UAM_ConOps_v1.0.pdf). The 30-page document describes how urban air taxi operations will operate safely in the US National Airspace System. Developed in association with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and industry partners, it addresses early stage, low density and low complexity UAM operations (UML 1-2). It includes the first release of an ATM architecture with dedicated UAM corridors as shown in the illustration. This first version is the result of coordinated activities in 2019 and guided discussion sessions at NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) in February 2020.
The document defines the UAM operating environment in the context of manned and unmanned ATM. It considers how operations may be conducted the future and anticipates test, validation and verification activities before becoming a more established description. It sets out the roles and responsibilities of airspace users and service providers and details the different activities necessary for safe UAM operations to take place. It considers different stakeholder needs and demand capacity balancing when applying UAM corridors. It applies concepts already developed for UTM including use of a digital and networked system based on a service-oriented architecture with many of the same design patterns found in UTM.
The FAA is aiming to introduce greater flexibility to the corridor designs, for example by allocating greater tactical separation responsibilities to the ecosystems. “Safe operations occur based on a combination of strategic deconfliction and tactical separation. In UAM, strategic deconfliction is part of the ecosystem of Providers of Services for UAM (PSU).” However, this is likely to introduce large buffers, so tactical separation will also be performed by the UAM aircraft with support from the PSU network. “This is an area where we are need further research,” he added.
The FAA identifies a number of focus areas to refine areas of responsibility and performance requirements. Among these, defining UAM operational intent is important to manage traffic flow within the corridors, along with further analysis of different traffic mixes. “4D trajectory is probably not enough, we need to establish what will be required.” Vertiports will service a range of aircraft – flying in corridors as well as controlled airspace – and will not operate in a sterilised environment. The design of the corridors is also significant to ensure they interface seamlessly with UTM and Air Traffic Control (ATC).
Meanwhile In July 2021 NASA chose 13 companies and institutions under the Space Act Agreement to define and develop the future of advanced aerial mobility (AAM).
AAM activities include:
• Community Planning and Integration Annex, led by the Ohio Department of Transportation
• Airspace Annex, led by OneSky
• Infrastructure Annex, led by the University of North Texas – Denton.
NASA has divided the UAM market into six levels of technology maturity,
In March 2020 NASA signed Space Act Agreements with 17 companies in the aviation industry to advance plans for the first in a series of technology demonstrations known as the UAM Grand Challenge, now renamed the AAM Grand Challenge. The goal of the challenge is to test the capabilities and readiness of vehicles and systems that could revolutionize mobility in and around densely populated metropolitan areas.
When fully implemented, UAM will provide a safe and efficient system for passenger and cargo air transportation and could include such innovations as small package delivery within dense urban areas; personal taxi service by air; air medical services, such as patient ambulance transportation; and cargo delivery to underserviced communities.
The following industry partners have signed Space Act Agreements with NASA for the next phase of the National Campaign:
• Electra Aero, based in Manassas, Virginia
• OverAir, based in Santa Ana, California
• Supernal based in Washington, DC
• Ellis & Associates, a consulting arm of Lacuna Technologies, based in Palo Alto, California
Five local and state governments have signed Space Act Agreements to work alongside NASA to consider how emerging vehicles can best be included in their civic transportation plans. Experts from the localities and NASA will work on updating local plans and creating new plans that might be needed to enable AAM. State and local transportation agencies:
• Massachusetts Department of Transportation
• Minnesota Department of Transportation
• The North Central Texas Council of Governments Department of Transportation
• The Ohio Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of the Ohio Department of Transportation
• The City of Orlando, Florida
Meanwhile, Joby has established a new certification agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration for its S-4 all-electric air taxi, a major step toward the company's goal of operating the aircraft commercially by the mid-2020s. The S-4 was also awarded military airworthiness approval in December 2020. A civilian version of the aircraft will be certified using the FAA’s Part 23 requirements with the special conditions listed in the G1 added to account for the unique nature of the aircraft. Joby is projecting a 2024 commercial entry into service for its eVTOL.
The initial UAM ecosystem will use existing helicopter infrastructure such as routes, helipads, and Air Traffic Control (ATC) services, where practicable given the aircraft characteristics. Looking toward the future, the FAA is working to identify infrastructure design needs for these aircraft. FAA expects to develop a new vertiport standard in the coming years.
On March 2, 2022, the FAA issued draft interim guidance, via Engineering Brief, to support the design and operation of facilities that electric vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft will use for initial operations. In June 2022 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that aims to provide USD25 million in grants over two years to plan and build vertiport infrastructure for advanced air mobility.
US aircraft operators, meanwhile, have been busy buying eVTOLs.
• In February 2021 United announced a $1 billion order for Archer Aviation eVTOLs .United will perform intra-city services with the type in partnership with Mesa Airlines.
• In April 2021 United Parcel Service announced it had ordered 10 eVTOLs from Beta Technologies. Atlanta-based UPS said it will test the eVTOLs for use in its Express Air delivery network, focusing on small and medium markets. The company will operate the eVTOLs under its Flight Forward division, which is also exploring drone delivery.
• In June 2021, American Airlines placed a conditional pre-order of up to 250 VX4s, with the option of 100 more. The companies said they believe this commitment to pay pre-delivery payments and confirm slot reservations for the first 50 aircraft is “the first of its kind for a major airline in the eVTOL industry.” In June 2021 aviation investment firm Directional Aviation announced an order for 200 eVTOL aircraft from Eve. The aircraft will be operated by Halo, a Directional Aviation brand created by the alignment of Associated Aircraft Group (AAG) in the U.S. — which Directional Aviation’s OneSky Flight acquired in February of this year — and Halo Aviation Ltd. in the U.K., which it acquired in May. Deliveries of Eve’s four-passenger eVTOL air taxi expected to begin in 2026.
• In December 2021 – Eve Air Mobility announced a Memorandum of Understanding and Letter of Intent for Republic Airways to purchase up to 200 of Eve’s eVTOL to explore additional opportunities within its subsidiaries, such as LIFT Academy, that are focused on workforce development initiatives and the future of air travel. The strategic relationship will focus on developing a deployment network throughout the Central and East Coast markets of the United States, with an initial focus on the Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. markets.
• In March 2022 Global Crossings Airlines Group (Global X) announced an order for 200 Eve eVTOLs. This potential sale is included in Eve’s current order backlog of up to 1,785 eVTOLs. The company expects to start the deliveries in 2026 and thee eVTOLs will be deployed in south Florida, bringing customers to their flights at MIA and FLL, as well as local flying within Key West and all of the Keys, Naples and Palm Beach.
• In March 2022 NetJets signed a memorandum of understanding, giving it the right to order up to 150 Lilium jets. The zero-emissions eVTOLs would be used for its U.S. and European fractional ownership programmes.
Meanwhile, the Community Air Mobility Initiative (CAMI) has brought together local/regional and state authorities with industry to explore how local authorities can develop the rules and relationships with industry players and regulators to advance UAM/AAM in the USA. CAMI local authority members comprise:
• The Choctaw Nation
• City of San Jose
• Los Angeles Department of Transportation
• Massachusetts Department of Transportation
• Seebring Regional Airport
• Washington State Department of Transportation.
Meanwhile fixed-wing cargo operations company Xwing has released plans to operate converted Cessna 208B Grand Caravans without pilots on board and has acquired three air cargo carriers—San Antonio Air Charter, Martinaire Aviation and AirPac Airlines—to test its autonomous flight technology in commercial flights. The company has a contract with UPS. In August 2022, XWing announced it was building infrastructure to support pilotless operations with a communications and command centre. “To date, the company has logged over 150 autonomous flights and 300 auto landings and amassed more than 200 hours of autonomous operations. Flights originate just north of San Francisco in Concord and are approved to operate at a handful of area airports,” said a report in Future Flight.