The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Drone Maintenance Group Targets eVTOL Aircraft Support Requirements

The business models for commercial eVTOL aircraft operations, carrying either passengers or freight, typically envisage large numbers of vehicles making high volumes of flights each day. At face value, thousands of new aircraft types potentially flying hundreds of thousands of hours in short bursts and with multiple takeoffs and landings will equate to a massive maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) task that the new wave of operators will need to be ready to handle from day one.

Robotic Skies is seeking to undertake this mission, which would expand the scope of the support it is providing to multiple commercial drone operators. Last month, the U.S. company received an undisclosed amount of strategic investment from Hearst Ventures that founder and CEO Brad Hayden told FutureFlight will support its efforts to expand in the fast-growing advanced air mobility (AAM) sector.

From its new headquarters in Salt Lake City, Robotic Skies offers a global network of service centers to support uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS). This consists of more than 233 independently owned, certified repair stations in more than 50 countries that Hayden said could provide the basis for supporting piloted eVTOLs, including those involved in air taxi operations.

“A lot of companies [in the AAM sector] are not traditional aviation companies, and they don’t necessarily know what the aviation requirements are or will be,” Hayden said. “But they have global aspirations for their operations, and we can help them build their maintenance programs and deploy aircraft in the field.”

Robotic Skies brings UAS customers to the repair stations, negotiates rates for MRO services, and then handles all aspects of payments. The group also provides training to service centers in its network, as well as giving access to parts and aircraft data as needed. Its customer base already embraces well-established UAS operators, including Skyports and drone manufacturers such as AeroVironment.

The company is also engaged in discussions over the regulatory framework for supporting new aircraft, including eVTOL designs. Hayden said that while global rules are not yet harmonized, existing Part 145 maintenance regulations provide the basis for a quality standard.

“Quality management and controls will be very important to the acceptance of this new aircraft,” he stressed. The former Aspen Avionics executive sits on the National Business Aviation Association’s AAM roundtable group and also works on several committees with the ASTM International standards organization.

Under current Part 107 rules covering line-of-sight UAS operations conducted away from populated areas, the airworthiness requirements can essentially be determined by the on-ground pilot. However, Hayden said that some “high-end” drone manufacturers and operators are already aspiring to higher standards, and he sees these being established as both cargo and passenger operations of eVTOL aircraft get underway in 2024.

According to Hayden, the AAM sector's requirements are more complex than those of the very light jets that promised to shake up the business aviation sector when they entered the market starting around 2000. “This situation is more complex because there is such a wide range of aircraft with different profiles and they need a very different ecosystem,” he stated. “New skills will be required, and we’ll see a new grade of maintenance technicians, with people needed to combine the current A&P [airframe and powerplant mechanic] role with ground handling and autonomous operations supervision.” For autonomous aircraft, he sees a ground handler or maintenance professional doing the walk-around before takeoff in place of the pilot.

Robotic Skies aims to be part of the process of recruiting a new breed of technicians for the AAM sector. While the core skills of aviation maintenance technicians are sound, the new aircraft will require people who are comfortable supporting electric and hybrid propulsion systems and also versatile enough to deal with composite materials.

“What we’ll see is a new [MRO] market rooted in what we have today, and we’ll have to ensure that new companies have a strong safety culture embedded in their organizations, and that has to be taught through traditional aviation structures,” Hayden argued. “These companies want very scalable operations and they won’t be scalable if the aircraft have to keep going back to the factory [for maintenance].”

Robotic Skies has previously had backing from leading venture capital groups, including Boeing Horizon X. In recent years, media and information group Hearst has made big investments in aerospace, artificial intelligence, and drone technology, and the newest member of its portfolio expects to be able to leverage these connections to its advantage.

Hayden pointed to markets such as Southeast Asia and Japan as likely strong growth areas for AAM. His company expects to generate revenues from both eVTOL manufacturers and operators who he feels will benefit from its expertise as they face the task of transitioning from their research and development, start-up phase to day-to-day operations.