The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Industry Leaders Look To Existing Infrastructure and Helicopter Experience As a Foundation For Advanced Air Mobility

As advanced air mobility nears market (AAM) entry in the next several years, many industry leaders agree that much work lies ahead on building out the infrastructure and tackling key issues such as autonomy, safety, and security. But some of these leaders, speaking during a webinar hosted by Helicopter Association International (HAI) last week, agreed that the existing infrastructure in place can provide a starting point for such operations.

“There is a lot that needs to be done,” said former FAA administrator Michael Huerta, who is now a transportation industry consultant. “We are establishing a whole new way to think of air transportation…We need to focus on adapting our traffic system to ensure that everything can operate safely. Eventually, you have to land. And that raises questions of where you put infrastructure.”

Policymakers, the AAM community, and opinion leaders must work together to “understand what the requirements are, what the needs are, and how do we build the physical infrastructure, the human infrastructure, the aircraft infrastructure. And of course, all of that requires awareness and acceptance,” added NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen.

As for infrastructure, Bolen maintained there are many different considerations. These include digging into FAA helicopter and vertiport guidance that may facilitate their use for AAM operations.  This also includes determining what the performance requirements will be and ensuring there is adequate funding for both the planning and construction, he said.

Gary Gysin, president and CEO of eVTOL aircraft developer Wisk Aero, who also joined the HAI panel on August 26, added, “One of the things you see in this industry is people have nice CGI videos. They have these brand new vertiports and they just look fantastic.” But while they highlight a brand-new infrastructure, he said, “We have the infrastructure now, general aviation airports, international airports…and helipads.”

While electric vehicles such as the two-seat eVTOL, and another larger model, that Wisk is working on will requiring electric charging infrastructure, the California-based company believes the industry should “leverage what we've already got instead of having to build brand new things that are special purpose.”

HAI president and CEO James Viola also noted existing vertiports are one of the first possibilities for infrastructure, along with existing airports. But he believes that pilots can play a key role in understanding what the performance requirements of their vehicles are and which facility is most suitable. “We can take some of that responsibility off the FAA,” he said. “Let’s use current infrastructure to the maximum capability that helicopters can do today.” Viola added that the helicopter community can collaborate on the safety front with the emerging AAM sector because “the vehicles of the future are going to need that type of experience.” He noted the background helicopter operators have to operate in various weather conditions and at lower altitudes that AAM vehicles might operate.

In addition, existing helicopter operators are familiar with the various missions that the new AAM sector can pick up and build upon. In his view, the AAM pioneers can provide an end-to-end ecosystem working with helicopters, and fixed wing aircraft to move people and goods through the system to provide a larger societal benefit.

However, Huerta added that as people focus on certifying aircraft and developing infrastructure, “the air traffic management questions are quite significant.” He noted that for AAM to realize its full potential it will require a scalable system that can integrate with automated systems “and that raises a whole series of operational questions.”

Aviation is founded on this principle of a three-legged stool of a certified pilot, a certified operation, and a certified aircraft, the former FAA leader said. And, while a pilot can be a remote pilot, the question of how to “operate safely is a very, very important policy question. “That is foundational to gaining public acceptance, which ultimately this industry is going to depend on…We need to be thinking what needs to be done, what can Congress do to help enable that, and what are the tools that the FAA needs as a regulator to be able to accommodate that,” said Huerta suggested this is something that could be addressed in the next FAA reauthorization bill.

Gysin said safety is driving Wisk’s desire to move toward autonomy first rather than focusing on a piloted version. “Most people will talk about starting with a pilot in the cockpit, and then the pilot out of the cockpit. The ultimate goal is to do autonomy,” he said but contended autonomy is “an overused word. If you call it remote piloted or self-flying—you can use different —there's a pilot in the loop. They just don't happen to be in the cockpit.” But, he added, “The more workload that you reduce, the safer aviation becomes, and that's the primary driver for us.”

The leaders also contemplated security concerns. “I think that it's fair to say that we at the FAA, but also the drone community, hadn't really thought through in the early days how to bring the security community along,” Huerta said. “I think that we as an industry need to be attuned to what might be the security challenges that we need to overcome.”

NBAA’s Ed Bolen said the community has been reaching out to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to discuss the unique attributes of AAM and said that the aviation industry is collectively working through issues involving safety, sustainability, and security. Wisk looks at lessons learned from the defense industry as well as those learned in the drone sector, Gysin said. “We've got drones flying every day. We've got millions of hours of safe drone flight, non-hackable drones, big drones, like Global Hawks,” he said. “We're engaging with those types of industry players to learn those kinds of lessons and figure out how we can deploy to provide a secure environment.”

The assembled aviation leaders further agreed that issues such as the state and local roles must be ironed out and the eagerness of local communities to become involved and help make AAM a reality.

Bolen noted that, “there's a lot of enthusiasm in the business aviation community for advanced air mobility” and that it “it builds on decades of experience” of the underlying foundation of business aviation. In his view, the industry has adapted in its ability to move people through various propulsion, aluminum composites. “What we're seeing now is an opportunity to build on that, to go to electric propulsion, hybrid, and even hydrogen,” he concluded.