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features How the FAA is proceeding with rules for eVTOL type certification and operation

Following the FAA’s decision to change course on fixed-wing eVTOL type certification, we reached out to industry experts to learn more about how the authority plans to proceed.
Avatar for Treena Hein By Treena Hein | July 6, 2022

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 5 seconds.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as everyone in the industry is aware, recently changed course on the certification pathway for fixed-wing eVTOL aircraft — those being developed by Joby Aviation, Archer Aviation, Beta Technologies and others.

It moved from a pathway used for small airplanes (Part 23 of the federal code) to the special class of “powered-lift” aircraft (section 21.17(b)), a class which includes the Harrier Jet and all rotary-wing eVTOLs. This means all eVTOLs in the U.S. will now be certified through this special class.

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The General Aviation Manufacturers Association said it has serious concerns about the number of rules the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has to analyze and apply in order to keep within its promised certification timelines to eVTOL developers, such as Beta Technologies. Beta Image.

On May 17, in a hearing of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Pete Bunce, president and CEO at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), expressed very serious concerns about the number of rules the FAA has to analyze and apply in order to keep within its promised certification timelines to eVTOL developers.

Bunce pointed out to the committee that the FAA is already behind on creating about 50 rules spanning many other topics, some of them omnibus rules and quite complex.

“In the previous path [Part 23], we were going to go under some deviations and waivers until a rule was done,” he said. “Now, if there’s not going to be a delay, we have to hold the FAA to their word that there won’t be a delay and they have to pass what’s called an SFAR, a Special Federal Aviation Regulation … So, we’ve created this funnel and … something has to give. We’ve got to get through this process very quickly.”

Regarding that need for speed, Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society (VFS), recently stated that the FAA has committed to “an ‘all-of-agency’ effort to expedite the development and publication of an SFAR this summer to support commercial operations of 21.17(b) aircraft. This must be followed by a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) this fall.” 

“In remarks to the FAA-EASA safety conference in mid-June, FAA Acting Administrator [Billy] Nolen stated the FAA’s intent to be able to certify eVTOL by 2024 — suggesting a clear operational path would be made available before that time,” Hirschberg added.

But he noted that “it has often taken the agency a decade to create new rules. The FAA must now move at speeds it has seldom ever achieved in the past. If it fails, the U.S. will lose its leadership in eVTOL, and the rest of the world will move forward without it, much like what happened in the drone industry two decades ago.”

For its part, when reached for comment about rules and sticking to established timelines, the FAA stated that “we can certify new technologies, such as eVTOLs, through our existing regulations, [but] some certifications could require the FAA to issue special conditions or additional airworthiness criteria.” The agency added that with regard to policies and procedures, current regulations “allow aircraft to meet our strict safety standards in innovative ways,” but did not elaborate.

Rules must be released for industry feedback, and feedback considered, before rules are released in final form.

Two groups of rules

According to Walter Desrosier, vice president of engineering and maintenance at GAMA, the FAA has briefed specific companies and industry groups like his about its rules approach. In short, the majority of the applicable standards will come from Part 23 and some other parts of the federal code.

But he said “we still have significant concerns that the FAA will be able to work through the rules for type certification for the eVTOL aircraft that have been promised this by the FAA in 2024. There are a lot of new and novel technologies involved for various eVTOLs to achieve type certification, like software systems and human interface, and these are challenging for all new designs, from large jets to helicopters.” He echoed the FAA by pointing out that “more unique designs may need more special conditions in their type certification.”

But for GAMA, operational rules are the bigger concern.

Desrosier said “these must be worked through, and there are many, many of them over the next two years for the eVTOLs that will be certified in 2024 to enter into service. At the same time, we are optimistic and hopeful, and will be offering our support and suggestions.”

He explained that whether it’s private, recreational use or commercial use, finalizing operational eVTOL certification rules involves working through Parts 119, 135, all the pilot licensing and certification rules and possibly some maintenance rules.

“All those parts refer to either airplane and rotorcraft, and nowhere is powered-lift mentioned,” Desrosier said. “We believe the vast majority of relevant rules will be those that apply to rotorcraft, some to planes, and in some cases, it will be simple addition of the words ‘powered-lift.’ But there will be some areas where there will be something that will be unique and take time to finalize.”

Pilot rules

As mentioned, operational rules include pilot training and licensing, and while Desrosier believes this area will require a very comprehensive and broad review, again, he also thinks a lot of the existing rules are applicable. “At the same time,” he said, “we expect that pilot training will be aircraft-specific, that pilots for each eVTOL model will need a type rating requirement.”  

Desrosier also expects that industry will strongly recommend that pilot training be permitted to begin in parallel with rule development.  

He also noted that approval for pilot training by the FAA and at a global level is already in place for Leonardo’s tiltrotor helicopter, which is a powered-lift aircraft. (It will probably receive type certification in 2023, he said, after many years of getting there.) And the FAA, Desrosier reported, has already stated to the International Civil Aviation Organization that this training program can be used for future powered-lift aircraft.

On the subject of eVTOL pilot training and certification rules, the FAA stated to eVTOL.com that it is “pursuing a predictable framework that will better accommodate the need to train and certify the pilots who will operate these novel aircraft.” 

At the same time that it tries to accomplish all this, the FAA is experiencing labor challenges, as are many other sectors. GAMA is concerned there are presently a large number of new hires with lesser experience at the FAA. And with the volume of innovation and new technologies in aviation — across business jets, commercial airliners, eVTOLs, unmanned aircraft and others — these new hires need to be adequately resourced and trained. Congress must provide the needed funding, Desrosier said.

Rules in other markets

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is also working through type certification rules for eVTOLs under a Special Conditions pathway, recently publishing three new documents to build up its framework. The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority has also said it will use the same approach as EASA.   

The approach being used in China is similar for piloted eVTOL type certification, according to Louis Liu, founder and CEO of China-based DAP Technologies. DAP provides certification consultation for eVTOL developers such as Volocopter and is currently working with two other original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the U.K. and China which can’t yet be named.

Liu believes the FAA decision to create a new special class framework to certify fixed-wing eVTOLs and all other eVTOLs is the best solution going forward.

However, China is starting its eVTOL type certifications with aircraft that are remote-piloted or autonomous such as EHang. Liu explained that there are many special conditions that need to be examined in this process, relating to datalinks, ground stations and more.

In further comparing the approaches in the U.S. and China, Liu said “China is more open and flexible, and the OEMs there have lower development costs, but the FAA and U.S. OEMs have more experience in airworthiness certification.”

He believes that along their respective eVTOL certification journeys, China and the U.S. — and OEMs as well — will all learn from each other.

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2 Comments

  1. Isn‘t it time the FAA looked closely at EASA‘s work and adopted as much of that as possible? EASA has invested great effort, industry has contributed massively, SC-VTOL is now 3 years old, and this business is international. Let‘s standardise as much as we can and use what is in place.

    1. If only there was an international body set up by treaty to set standards and recommended practices in civil aviation that then could be implemented by nations that have signed the treaty….you could call it I dunno something like the international civil aviation organisation….

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