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An inside look at the FAA reauthorization bill and ‘Innovate 28’

By Treena Hein

Published on: June 15, 2023
Estimated reading time 15 minutes, 50 seconds.

Among the many priorities in the FAA reauthorization bill is a focus on accommodating new entrants, such as eVTOL aircraft, into the national airspace.

We’re about four months away from the passing of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, with a draft announced June 9, and among its many priorities is a focus on future eVTOL use.

The last FAA reauthorization occurred in 2018. It was the first multi-year reauthorization since 2012 and the first five-year reauthorization since 1982. 

Among the many priorities in the FAA reauthorization bill is a focus on accommodating new entrants into the airspace, such as Joby’s eVTOL aircraft. Joby Photo

As former acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen explained to a U.S. Senate Committee Hearing in February, “our current authorization expires on Sept. 30, and there is sustained energy from both industry and government around the development of ideas and proposals to modernize the national air system.”

Nolen noted that the FAA must now manage three airspace systems, two of them being the legacy management system, and the other being “the system that relies on the next generation of technology for improved communication, navigation and surveillance.”

The third is “a future that has already arrived. It is the system that must accommodate new entrants in all their forms, including drones, advanced air mobility [AAM] aircraft, commercial spacecraft, and other new aircraft yet to be imagined. It will involve autonomous aircraft, data exchanges and a dynamic airspace.”

Nolen acknowledged that for the FAA to sustain, implement and plan for all of these systems, “we have a lot of work ahead … We must work with stakeholders, make strategic investments, and create an agile regulatory structure that maintains safety, ensures efficiency, and facilitates access for new entrants.”

Demonstrations and tests

Just how does the FAA foresee new entrants being integrated into the national airspace?

“We expect the initial AAM aircraft will operate much like helicopters do today, using existing infrastructure, such as helipads, routes and air traffic control services where possible,” stated an FAA spokesperson. “It is going to take additional innovation as this segment of aviation grows.”

The spokesperson added that “with an eye toward the greater automation we know must come, we’ve been conducting demonstrations with NASA, industry stakeholders and others at test sites since 2019. The test results are providing us with information to develop policies and standards to support routine operations.”

Among other things, the tests have examined increasingly large and complex operations and information exchange between airspace management service providers and between service providers and the FAA, including message security.

Supernal
According to the FAA, new AAM aircraft will likely operate much like helicopters do today — using existing infrastructure such as helipads, routes and air traffic control services. Supernal Photo

VFS perspective

Mike Hirschberg, former executive director of the Vertical Flight Society (VFS) and now director of strategy, views the FAA reauthorization as an important opportunity for the U.S. Congress to provide strategic priorities to the agency.

“With dramatic advancements in eVTOL flight testing and progress toward certification since 2018, Congress must help the FAA meet the challenge of AAM,” he said. “This includes providing the FAA with sufficient funding for personnel, and in particular certification personnel, with relevant experience wherever possible.”

The top VFS priorities for FAA reauthorization are for congressional oversight to ensure that:

1. The FAA meets its self-imposed 2024 deadline for the special federal aviation regulation (SFAR) that will facilitate powered-lift aircraft into the national airspace system, and a path that ensures companies can operate if the FAA misses that deadline.

2. Existing helicopter and airplane infrastructure can be utilized for day one operations.

3. Bilateral aviation safety agreements will be updated to include powered-lift aircraft where needed, ensuring that U.S. products can receive streamline validation around the world.

4. Airport funding must be increased for programs like the Airport Improvement Program and include electric charging and hydrogen infrastructure at airports.

5. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) programs should be increased to include hydrogen and electric charging, which are more sustainable energy sources than kerosene-based SAF. 

“In addition,” Hirschberg said, “aviation and the FAA should be explicitly added to the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation [joint between the Departments of Energy and Transportation] to allow the FAA to borrow DOE expertise on batteries and hydrogen.”

Industry expects the FAA to meet its 2024 deadline for the special federal aviation regulation (SFAR) that will facilitate powered-lift aircraft into the national airspace system. eVTOL developers like Archer are waiting on this rulemaking in order to meet its commercialization goal of 2025. Archer Photo

Type certification, pilots and vertiports

Digging into how certification of eVTOLs fits into the reauthorization, the FAA spokesperson noted that FAA regulations already allow manufacturers “to achieve our safety standards in innovative ways.” So far, the FAA has published the proposed airworthiness certification criteria for Joby and Archer.

On the pilot front, the spokesperson reported that standards creation for these new powered-lift aircraft is “on pace.”

“Additionally, we know aviation shares borders with more industries today and we are reaching out so there is collaboration,” the spokesperson said. “One of those is the electric power industry, which will be critical at vertiports. And action from local governments is key to approving vertiport locations.”

Rex Alexander, president of consulting firm Five-Alpha, noted that last September, the FAA published Engineering Brief No. 105, Vertiport Design, with a complete Vertiport Advisory Circular expected to follow by 2025.

“Prior to this, the only other published vertiport standard [in the world] was ASTM International’s F-3423, Standard Specification for Vertiport Design, which came out in August 2022,” he said.  

Working with various industries and local governments around vertiport development is only one way in which the FAA is focused on collaboration to maintain its leadership in eVTOL.

“Successful integration requires working with our international partners, and we’re working with other civil aviation authorities [such as the European Union Aviation Safety Agency] to harmonize our AAM integration strategies,” the spokesperson said. “For example, we joined the National Aviation Authorities Network, which consists of the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.”

In addition, in October 2022, the FAA signed a declaration of cooperation with Japan on integrating and certifying AAM aircraft.

“We’re eager to work with other nations so we can exchange expertise and share progress with each other,” the spokesperson said. 

Volocopter is one of the many eVTOL companies working with Urban Movement Labs to explore eVTOL operations in the Los Angeles market. The FAA’s Innovate 28 program has been developed to support such operations in time for the Summer Olympics in 2028. Volocopter Photo

Innovate 28

Meanwhile, an FAA program called Innovate 28 is being developed to support initial trial operations of eVTOLs in several U.S. early adopter communities by 2028.

“We know that when the Los Angeles Summer Olympics get underway in 2028, air taxis will be in high demand. Our job at the FAA is to make that possible,” explained the FAA spokesperson.

The industry is excited by this lofty goal. For his part, Hirschberg noted that “anything that inspires the FAA and other government agencies to expand eVTOLs to broader adoption is great.”

Among other published commentary, eVTOL use at the 2028 Olympics has been described as “an opportunity to be on the global stage” by Archer founder and CEO Adam Goldstein.

Eric Allison, head of product at Joby, has stated publicly that many, if not most, of the pieces that need to come together to scale AAM by 2028 “are in the FAA’s hands, so to have the FAA leading and talking about this is an awesome bit of foresight.”

As part of this leadership and foresight, in May 2023, the FAA released an implementation plan that shows “how all the pieces of our safety work will come together, allowing the industry to scale safely,” the spokesperson said.  

Developed with NASA and industry stakeholders, the urban air mobility (UAM) concept of operations (CONOPS) 2.0 was released this spring.

CONOPS 2.0

In the CONOPS 2.0, the FAA notes that mature UAM operations will be achieved at scale through a crawl-walk-run approach.

First, in the “crawl” phase, UAM operations will consist of new aircraft certified to fly within the current regulatory and operational environment.

In the next “walk” phase, higher flight and aircraft volumes will be supported through regulatory evolution and UAM corridors that leverage collaborative technologies and techniques.

Use of a vertical common passing zone, as illustrated in the FAA UAM CONOPS 2.0

The FAA expects that air taxis will first fly in corridors between major airports and vertiports in city centers, but that corridor complexity could increase over time from single one-way paths to routes serving multiple flows of aircraft flying in both directions. Over time, automation of aircraft, as well as real-time data-sharing between them, will likely play increasing roles in these corridors.

The FAA concludes that “corridors may offer the opportunity to respond to what could be new levels and types of service demands, while taking advantage of the aircraft’s capabilities and without adversely impacting current service levels. The concept of UAM corridors envisions safe and efficient UAM operations that may not require traditional air traffic control services in certain situations, are available to any aircraft appropriately equipped to meet the performance requirements, and would be created/implemented when operationally advantageous.”

The FAA foresees that UAM operators, among their other future duties, will need an operational intent in order to operate in UAM corridors and participate in communication with other operators for many purposes, such as strategic deconfliction as needed.

In the third “run” phase of UAM scale-up, the FAA states in CONOPS 2.0 that “new operational rules and infrastructure facilitate highly-automated cooperative flow management in defined cooperative areas, enabling remotely-piloted and autonomous aircraft to safely operate at increased operational tempos.”

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