Oct. 20, 2022

Now that major airlines, including United, American and Delta, have made provisional purchase agreements with Silicon Valley developers of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, the industry is beginning what could be an historic shift toward a future with hundreds of small air taxis and cargo aircraft flying in the national airspace system (NAS).

“Right now, we are seeing the industry start to organize itself.” said Jason Lorenzon, an ATP pilot and aviation law professor at Ohio’s Kent State University who spoke at the 2022 NBAA Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA-BACE) in Orlando, FL.

Lorenzon, a recognized expert on advanced air mobility (AAM), offered a peek into what NAS operations might look like for emerging battery-powered flying air taxis and cargo aircraft. Business aviation likely will be among the first adopters of this new technology, using air taxis to transport passengers to and from airports – the first and last miles of their journeys.

“I was talking to some of the leadership at NetJets and Flexjet, who are into this,” Lorenzon said. “They’re looking at point-to-point, door-to-door operations – picking up somebody who is going to fly from maybe Cuyahoga County Airport [CGF], and pick them up at their doorstep with a personal aero vehicle.”

In fact, although eVTOLs are still going through flight test campaigns and certification processes, NetJets has already signed a memorandum of understanding with Germany-based eVTOL developer Lilium to purchase up to 150 piloted AAM air taxis for possible operations in Florida.

At first, most air taxi developers plan for a pilot-in-command to be on board each aircraft. But eventually they intend to move to a self-flying, automated model, overseen by a controller on the ground. If and when this entirely new form of air transport begins operating in dense urban landscapes, Lorenzon said it will be “very interesting to see how it develops.”

“You’re going to see humans and automation take over,” Lorenzon said. Although aircraft will be automated, humans will always be in the loop, monitoring as many as 10 aircraft via a “direct connection with that aerial vehicle.”

Next level, operators might have “500, upwards to 1,000 that they’re overseeing. And when the computer screen or some sort of message comes up, they have to react.”

Obviously, AAM will require changes in regulation of the NAS. “There’s going to be UAS corridors with certain tracks,” Lorenzon said. “What I’m thinking is going to happen, this will be above 400 feet. …I think the corridors are going to be in circular columns where an eVTOL could easily climb up and get into that portion of the National Airspace System.”

Lorenzo expects regulators to establish urban highways in the sky for these new aircraft.

“They’re going to follow the roadways to put this all together,” he said. “In Ohio, we’re working on aerial corridors that actually flank the highways. You’re not going over personal property, not going over private property.”

This burgeoning new AAM industry will increase the need for jobs around areas like cybersecurity and aircraft operations. “You’re going to need programs – you’re going to need engineers, and of course, you’re going to need pilots – of which we already have a shortage. How do we commercialize that to get public support behind that?”

With such a major departure in air operations, obviously huge collaborations will be required between regulators and manufacturers. Lorenzon warned that it’s a situation that pits Silicon Valley against Washington, DC. “Silicon Valley is moving quite fast. Washington doesn’t move that fast,” Lorenzon said.

“Some people are saying this is going to happen in 10 years, some are saying it’s going to happen in 15 to 20 – perhaps longer – by the time we get to high-mature stage operations with a remote pilot in command.”

Although he acknowledged that public perception and support for these new aircraft and operations are “not there just yet,” but “technology is always transforming what we’re doing and this is why I think there’s such a buzz and excitement about urban air mobility, about advanced air mobility, and what it’s going to do for us.”

Review NBAA’s emerging technologies resources.

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