Ensuring the safe and successful integration of autonomous aircraft into the existing ecosystem involves maturing the technology, the infrastructure, and the aircraft themselves. A panel discussion at NASA’s AAM Ecosystem Working Groups Workshop last month featured representatives from electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft developer Wisk, flight technology company autonomous Xwing and hybrid-electric VTOL developer Elroy Air. Deputy Director of Regulatory Operations, Policy and Innovation Division of the Federal Aviation Administration, Victor Wicklund, also participated in the roundtable entitled “Later UMLs & the Future of Autonomy”.
Wisk’s team is currently working on its sixth-generation aircraft, a fully electric, self-driving vehicle, according to product, infrastructure and operations manager Erick Corona. He highlighted the importance of silent operations in aircraft design for the future Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) ecosystem. “When we talk about customers, it’s not just the traveling public. These are the communities as a whole: they are part of the customer ecosystem and we provide services to them, directly or indirectly. It’s an urban air mobility problem, period.
Wisk also focuses on designing its aircraft to maximize the use of existing infrastructure. In urban environments, Corona said, there is underutilized infrastructure that is suitable for AAM operations. Leveraging existing infrastructure means less new construction and less disruption to local communities.
In February, Wisk announced a two-year partnership to conduct a study of AAM operations and their economic impact, and will collaborate with the Long Beach Economic Partnership. The joint effort will analyze the economic impact and workforce development of integrating AAM as well as community acceptance and awareness, integrating autonomous advanced air mobility operations into city transportation plans and funding opportunities with federal and state governments.
Wisk’s Erick Corona also predicts that future AAM infrastructure, and vertiports in particular, will need to be compatible with all types of VTOL aircraft. “It doesn’t make sense to have a unique one-aircraft infrastructure,” he explained. “It would be extremely costly and detrimental to the whole industry.”
Maxime Gariel, CTO of Xwing, noted that a priority to enable autonomy in the AAM ecosystem will be the digitization of air traffic control. The move to a more digital air traffic control system will make it easier to manage AAM operations in urban airspace as a variety of autonomous aircraft take to the skies. “It’s something the FAA really needs to drive,” Gariel added. “It’s a huge challenge for regulators to look at the amount of data being produced. The earlier we can integrate the FAA, the easier it will be to understand what is going on. »
Maxime Gariel from Xwing said Avionics in an interview last year that their team is working closely with the FAA to bring their technology to market. “We are running two tracks simultaneously. The first track focuses on certifying individual system components through Supplemental Type Certificates. Our first STC focuses on the detect and avoid system and is currently underway. The second track focuses on possibly manned and unmanned flights, which use uncertified technology but operational limitations to mitigate risk. This will allow us to perform revenue operations without requiring full certification.”
At Elroy Air, the focus is on intermediate logistics for automated cargo delivery. “It’s not just about operations in the air, but also having robust ground operations to really reduce the impact of a cargo operation,” said Terik Weekes, chief engineer at Elroy. “We are flying a full hybrid electric aircraft this year,” he added. Elroy Air recently announced a partnership agreement with FedEx Express for the flight testing of Elroy’s Chaparral VTOL aircraft. They plan to begin flight testing and evaluating Chaparral’s potential for cargo operations by next year.
One of the main concerns in achieving future autonomy goals for advanced air mobility is establishing a mature ecosystem for providers, Weekes explained. “We are dealing with relatively new aircraft configurations. This means that not every company can vertically integrate and scale every technology. It will be important to understand the basis and timing of maturation of these first-generation aircraft, and to have the ability to certify new configurations and increasingly complex technology in order to launch subsequent generations of aircraft.
The FAA’s Victor Wicklund encourages developers of autonomous aircraft to work with the organization early on, “even if you think you’re not ready for certification,” he said. “We would like to understand your objectives and goals to help identify what needs to be done to enable this [pathway to certification].”
“We recognize that certification alone is not enough to bring these new concepts and aircraft into the system. We will help foster communication with air traffic control and flight standards to help establish an onboarding path. We are here to help identify the limitations we have to ensure that these standards meet regulatory needs. Regarding the requirements of airports and vertiports, we [want to] understanding each other’s goals and driving some of that industry collaboration. The more we can share with the industry, the more successful we will be.