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Why eVTOL firms should start now with SMS 

By Treena Hein

Published on: June 13, 2024
Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 19 seconds.

Vertical Aviation International believes eVTOL companies should already be gaining the benefits of a safety management system, well in advance of the FAA-mandated deadline.

In the opinion of Chris Hill, senior director of safety at Vertical Aviation International, starting now with voluntarily implementing a safety management system (SMS) should be a no-brainer for every eVTOL company.

They won’t have a choice in three years, in any case. In late April, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandated the use of an SMS by all charter, commuter and air tour operators by 2027. This includes all eVTOL companies that plan to fly part 135 commuter and on-demand operations, including Joby, Archer, and Wisk, among many others.

The shift to using an SMS framework in aviation began in the 1990s, moving the sector’s approach to safety from less reactive to more proactive and preventative. This was already being done in manufacturing and other industries.

SMS encompasses safety policy, safety risk management, safety assurance, safety promotion and safety culture.

Safety first

While Hill and his colleagues are very pleased the SMS rule has been finalized by the FAA, he stressed that safety should not be something that is forced upon companies. That is, eVTOL company leaders should view implementing an SMS not as something they have to do, but as something they should want to do voluntarily, rightly viewing the program as integral to the success of their future operations. 

That being said, Hill recognized that many eVTOL firms are already “leaning in” to various safety regulations and policies.

“They want to be very safe and ready to meet all the oversight they might be subjected to,” he explained. “I would think they want to ensure they are managing all their risks on the day they receive their operation certificate. They will want to hit the ground running with a comprehensive program in place to address gaps in operational safety.

“But company leaders will discover the value and many benefits of an SMS once it’s being put in place. From the start, VAI has promoted the intrinsic value of an SMS and we encourage all companies to get started now on realizing that value. Don’t wait any longer.”

Wisk is breaking new ground by implementing SMS for autonomous aircraft operations, providing opportunities for SMS innovation. Wisk Photo

Wisk, two years in

Wisk joined the SMS program in 2022. The company said it is on track to launch its eVTOL air taxi that will fly autonomously with human oversight. But not only did Wisk take the initiative with starting SMS in 2022, it also began implementing it across the entire company.

Leadership considered limiting the scope of SMS to just operations safety, but it was an impractical idea that would not meet company needs. At this point, two years into working on enterprise-wide SMS, things are going well.

“We have rolled up our sleeves and are getting to the education and adoption of SMS principles/components,” reported Connie Avery, senior manager of SMS. “Today, our focus is tactical in looking for business practices that are aligned or nearly aligned with SMS components and adapting those processes as required to fulfill the components of SMS for each of the lines of business. In the course of doing this work, we are curating our safety culture with intention.”

Of course, Wisk is also breaking new ground in that it’s implementing SMS for autonomous aircraft operation. This provides opportunities for SMS innovation, but Avery also noted that it’s a matter of following established pathways.

“While autonomous flight ops will bring a new set of hazards and issues that will be new to the industry, how we apply the SMS will be no different to traditional aircraft,” she explained. “Remember that SMS is also prevalent in the oil and medical sectors. This shows that the application of SMS is agnostic to the hazards being mitigated.”

With autonomy and SMS, Avery thinks the key will be investing in very in-depth hazards analysis using as many sources as possible.

“Safety only happens in the course of doing work, so our safety activities must be defined in the context of the work,” she explained. “How well we design, build and operate is measured by quality, and quality is intrinsic to safety. As a human-on-the-loop operating system, our human error opportunity has been moved upstream of crewed aircraft, increasing the significance of our system safety organization. Our strategy is to synergize the safety and quality efforts in direct support of our design, production and operating activities. We have spent this year aligning and nesting our activities that promote excellence.”

Sharing for the benefit of all

Wisk also plans to do its best to support a more open culture of sharing safety data between different original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), operators, and other stakeholders as the advanced air mobility (AAM) era begins.

While Wisk’s crewed competitors will have the first opportunity to forge a path for information sharing, with their aircraft and safety data streams existing ahead of Wisk’s, Avery said that “any way that Wisk can participate in a meaningful way, we will, and where we see an opportunity to lead the way for safety, we will. We remain committed to an enterprise SMS in which we can share insights and data.”

And data uniformity is key, she said, with regard to SMS implementation success. That means the need to introduce everyone across the Wisk organization to SMS lexicon, identify various processes/practices, and tap into or create safety metric data streams.

“While clean data is the end goal, that destination has several interim steps where we are laser focused, enabling us to have a solid foundation for our SMS,” Avery said.

eVTOL companies that have no operational history to implement SMS can first apply SMS to their testing program. They can then adopt what they learned during their testing history once they receive their type certificate. Wisk Photo

Motivation to implement

Hill surmised that those eVTOL company leaders who have waited this long to voluntarily implement SMS have perhaps been too focussed on the day-to-day.

“They haven’t taken a step back and taken that time to do a better job to look at the risks and what they will do to mitigate them. I’m not saying they don’t already do this. These companies have a keen understanding of their operational risks. They already have that in place, but they need to look at the gaps, clean up any loose ends, and they need to be able to articulate and demonstrate their work to the certifier. They have to track what they are doing, and get everyone in the organization to be a part of it.”

It may not be easy for eVTOL companies that have no operational history to implement SMS, but Hill said they will first apply SMS to their testing program.

“Then, they will adopt what they learned during their testing history once they have their certificate,” he said. “It will take time but it’s so worthwhile in so many ways to start now, in my view. Don’t wait another day.”

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