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FAA Holds First AAM Summit
  • 28 Aug 2023 01:42 PM
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FAA Holds First AAM Summit

By Dan Gettinger, Managing Editor
Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2023

In a multi-day event on Aug. 1–3, officials from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assured attendees that the agency would be ready for the introduction of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and other types of advanced air mobility (AAM) vehicles. The conference, which was hosted by the FAA and supported by the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), occurred at a critical time for the AAM industry, one in which many developers of eVTOL aircraft are accelerating efforts to develop commercially viable vehicles.

“Opportunities that AAM can open for the nation are a key focus of the federal government writ large,” said Jessica Sypniewski, the FAA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator of NextGen, in the opening keynote on Aug. 3. “We’ll be ready when [the aircraft developers] are ready to operate safely.”

Implementing AAM

The “AAM Entry into Service” plenary panel with (L-R): Katrina Hall, FAA Deputy Chief Operating Officer for National Airspace System Programs and Support; David Boulter, Acting FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety; Shannetta Griffin, Associate Administrator for Airports; and Annie Petsonk, Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Aviation & International Affairs. (VFS photos)

Representatives from the FAA, government agencies and industry convened at the Baltimore Convention Center to participate in the FAA’s eighth annual Drone Symposium, on Aug. 1–2 for a day and a half, paired with the agency’s first-ever AAM Summit, which ran from Aug. 2–3. The AAM Summit featured 30 speakers from FAA headquarters and regional offices, and eight from NASA, among others. The program included nearly two dozen panel discussions and keynotes on issues ranging from vertiports to noise and sustainability issues.

Implementing AAM operations in the US will require a whole-of-government approach, panelists agreed in the first panel discussion of the AAM Summit. It will also require the FAA to earn the public’s trust in new technological capabilities such as autonomy, a point that was repeatedly raised in other panels at the Summit.

Doing so will require federal agencies like the FAA and NASA to collaborate with industry to solve technical problems, such as the ability of an autonomous vehicle to operate in GPS degraded conditions, observed Dr. Parimal “PK” Kopardekar, NASA’s AAM Mission Integration Manager, in a separate panel.

Some of the recurrent themes in discussions at the Summit echoed those of other recent conferences on AAM, like that of the VFS Electric Aircraft Symposium in July (see “Electric Aircraft Symposium Highlights AAM Progress,” Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2023). One such theme was the need for the FAA to engage with local authorities.

Another important issue, which VFS has highlighted extensively since 2020, was the future vertical flight workforce. Bonny Simi, Head of Air Operations and People at Joby Aviation, and Chris Caputo, Flight Test Director for Beta Technologies, gave inspiring talks about their companies’ community and pre-college outreach, recruiting talent from often-overlooked schools and internship/training programs, not just for engineers but also for mechanics and other talent needs.

A breakout session on “Applying AAM to Government Functions” featured (L-R): Darshan “Dash” Divakaran, AFWERX; Nancy Mendonca, NASA; Mitchell Bernstein, FAA Innovate28 Program Manager; and Paula Nouragas, Chief Scientist and Technical Advisor, FAA Tech Center.

Speaking at a plenary on AAM entry into service on Aug. 3, Shannetta Griffin, the FAA’s Associate Administrator for Airports, observed that the agency will need to engage local communities on issues like land usage. “When we say we are going to be flying these vehicles into local communities, we really need to be working with them,” said Griffin. “There’s a gap there.” Griffin added that there are a lot of existing standards and policies that have gaps.

Solving those gaps could require innovative approaches towards experimentation and testing. Europe’s method of creating so-called “sandboxes” to allow aircraft and technology developers to deploy their systems could be one such approach, suggested Erick Corona, Director of ConOps & Airspace Ecosystem Development at Wisk Aero, in a separate panel on Aug. 3.

Aircraft noise and sustainability are additional areas that could hinder the degree to which communities accept eVTOL aircraft and AAM vehicles. David Senzig, a physical scientist with the Noise Division of the FAA’s Office of Environment and Energy, observed on Aug. 3 that the attitudes of individuals and communities towards noise can be a greater determinant of community acceptance than the noise levels themselves. The tonal noise emitted by rotorcraft makes it likelier that people on the ground will hear — and be annoyed by — helicopter than other types of noise, such as the ambient noise emitted by highways.

The FAA, said Senzig, is currently reviewing its noise policy to account for evolutions in attitudes and technologies.

Innovate28

A panel on AAM concepts of operations, moderated by NASA’s PK Kopardekar, featured (L-R): Erick Corona, Wisk; Greg Bowles, Joby; Dr. Valerie Manning, Overair; and Nikhil Goel, Archer.

The FAA is striving to meet the goal of implementing scaled AAM operations by the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, noted David Boulter, the FAA’s Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety. Of course, the agency recognizes that several cities will have limited operations before then, with companies like Joby and Archer expected to begin operations in 2025.

With leading developers like Joby and Wisk having been working on their eVTOL aircraft for a decade and a half — and more than 400 eVTOL developers and 850 designs now cataloged in the VFS World eVTOL Aircraft Directory (www.eVTOL.news/aircraft) — the FAA’s first AAM Summit may be long overdue, but better late than never. Hopefully, the information gathered by the agency and attendees will help keep the introduction of eVTOL aircraft on track.

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