A brilliant panel of speakers gathered at the Vertical Flight Society’s Forum76 event last Thursday to talk about the activities driving the development and acceptance of eVTOL aircraft.
The event is the world’s leading technical event on vertical flight technology, and this year’s virtual conference spanned four days from October 5th – 8th and featured more than 230 papers on every discipline – from acoustics to unmanned systems.
Contributing to this discussion, was Col. Nathan Diller, AFWERX Commander in the US Air Force, Mark Moore, Engineering Director of Aviation at Uber Elevate, Star Ginn, Advanced Air Mobility National Lead at NASA, Wes Ryan, Unmanned and Pilotless Aircraft Technology Lead at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and David Solar, Head of VTOL at the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
After each speaker gave a short presentation, one of the questions asked by moderator Brian Garrett-Glaser – eVTOL.com’s newly-appointed Managing Editor – was where they think the industry is today in terms of progress, compared to where they expected it would be two to three years ago.
Commenting first, Diller said: “No-one could forget the fact that we are still living under Covid-19 and that has created some challenges that set some folks back, but in some cases there were areas where it created opportunities.
“There is certainly the realisation that certification is a challenge, that’s a hard thing to do. We’re pretty far ahead in terms of collaboration. Wes and his team at the FAA, a fantastic team with Star at NASA, the level of collaboration between government organisations which are able to help work with folks like Uber and the great things they are doing, that is going to be key to success.
“We’ve made some pretty great strides in that, and we have a dozen companies on contract right now where there is meaningful investment actually happening this year. But overall, I’m impressed with the pace at which the industry is going and if we can keep it up, we’ll be surprised at how quickly it will come to fruition.”
Adding his comments, Moore said: “Three years ago, I’d have never been so audacious to guess that we’d have $3 billion going into eVTOL development. It’s absolutely stunning, the momentum in this industry.
“Everyday I’m holding my breath, waiting for the federal register to show the G1 and essentially the special conditions and certifications basis for one of these eVTOL developers.
“There has been such great work done with Amendment 64 and Part 23 Consensus Standards, and we’ve got to open up the path clearly and publicly for these eVTOL aircraft. I’m disappointed that hasn’t happened, and I’m going to keep holding my breath until we see that, because the industry will be blocked until we push through it.”
Ryan added: “When Mark and I and others met in Kansas City back in 2015 and talked about on-demand mobility at the time, trying to get this stuff moving, we were all very hopeful and optimistic.
“We could see technology emerging and see things where we hoped it would go, and I’m very impressed with the companies which have come in and built prototypes, are in flight testing and collaborating with government partners, and as mentioned in Col. Diller’s opening comments, the hiring of experts from the F35 to get the best flight control experts in the team. It’s been amazing to watch that evolution happen.”
And addressing Moore’s final point, he said: “One thing that is a bit of challenge is what Mark’s comment was, is that we have too many people waiting on the sidelines saying it’s the government or we’re waiting for the government to tell us what us to do.
“The companies which are building prototypes, flying and testing sub-scale and full-scale prototypes and developing the core technologies are the ones which will move forward.
“We purposely don’t want people waiting for the government. I understand your point about the G1 which would be a very nice thing to have, I don’t disagree…I hope we can get some generic standards put together, we’re working through the certification process on a few projects to help us lay down some more detailed foundations.
“What we didn’t want to do was publish something that was so open, that almost any design would meet the standard or requirement, so we’re trying to be a little more precise than that. It’s a great challenge for us to continue, but I would also volley it back and say the industry has got to keep developing detect-and-avoid and automation technologies, and the electric propulsion battery technologies to make sure we have viable and flyable products that are safe for civil use.”
Garrett-Glaser then asked Solar and Ginn about flight data, and whether the industry is struggling to get enough, and if so, how does it fix that.
“I think on vehicle design we are moving quite fast,” Solar said. “We have the most promising companies on eVTOL which are designing fantastic vehicles right now with the specifications they have got. Some of them are fairly surprisingly moving much more quicker than we expected.
“Where I think we are lagging a bit behind is on the upside, where the requirement to set down operational environment, and the UTM use space environment; we need much more visibility on that. That is where I see a problem in the near future, or at least the bottleneck because the lead time for these regulations are much higher than anything you can see now.”
Finally, Ginn said that she feels the industry is exactly where she expected it to be, and having 25 years of doing flight research of one-of-a-kind aircraft, she said these are in themselves, X-planes.
“The technologies are brand new, and a lot of ground testing to prove robustness for the flight environment is still occuring at the same time as people are developing the integrated systems to do the flight tests to understand handling qualities and fly-by-wire systems…we’re definitely expanding the envelope of understanding what these vehicles are and until we’re done doing that, we can’t start the certification process.
“Are these powered lift vehicles? Does it make sense what the certification path looks like, without seeing the operational data, and what their limitations are in the realm of crosswinds? There are a lot of things to flesh out on the operations side and that takes a lot of empirical data…anyone who thinks they’re going to skip ahead needs to understand the end-to-end process.”
Ginn also applauded the efforts of Moore for creating the ecosystem, and the team at Uber for putting the money behind expanding it further.
She added: “And it’s also all of us who have been in that core team of the crazy people who thought this was going to be a future, we’ve luckily kept that glue together on the ecosystem and it’s just extraordinary where we are right now.”
Those who registered for Forum76 can view every video presentation from the four days, by logging into the event page. For more information about the event, click here.