At face value, the current state of the regulatory environment for the nascent advanced air mobility (AAM) sector could be summarized in two words: uncertainty and opportunity. “While our industry doesn’t have much certainty about what the future will look like, what we do have is an opportunity to shape that future,” declared Diana Cooper, global head of policy and regulations at Hyundai’s eVTOL division, Supernal, during the Vertical Flight Society’s recent Transformative Vertical Flight conference in San Jose, California.
According to Cooper, there are lots of opportunities for the industry to engage with government leaders, regulators, and local communities on how AAM products will be regulated for many decades to come. Cooper highlighted some of the most important ones.
In the U.S., the recently passed federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is viewed as providing a potential springboard for advancing AAM. For instance, under the legislation, the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grant program is set to provide $100 million per year for five years for projects that address congestion and safety issues across transportation.
According to Cooper, the grant has the potential to be a vehicle for vertiport planning and development. “Aviation is defined as a potential beneficiary, meaning there is a real opportunity for AAM to partner with cities, states, and other entities,” she said.
Another provision of the act enables the Department of Energy to offer loans for transportation manufacturing facilities, including those used to build aircraft. Another aims to advance research and development to support the commercialization of hydrogen propulsion systems.
“Regulators are starting to look at transportation from a multimodal perspective,” Cooper told the conference. “As a result, we’re seeing aviation coming up in conversations that have traditionally focused on ground transportation.”
A good example of this is the act’s establishment of an intra-agency group called the Nontraditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council, or NETT Council. Its mission is to identify and resolve regulatory gaps and inconsistencies, engage with stakeholders, and publish best practices for all modes of transportation.
According to Cooper, AAM has a distinct opportunity as the entire federal apparatus works to implement the Infrastructure Act. “However, it is incumbent on the industry to provide the resources and knowledge to our broad network of stakeholders—from state and local governments to potential customers, nonprofits, and trade associations—in order to secure the funding that will allow us to advance,” she said.
While the Infrastructure Act has been signed into law, there’s no shortage of more specific aviation-related legislation making its way through the U.S. Congress. For instance, a bill proposed by the House of Representatives’ aviation subcommittee chairman Rick Larsen and ranking member Garret Graves, known as the Advanced Aviation Infrastructure Modernization Act (AAIM Act), would create a grant program administered by the Department of Transportation. The bill aims to help states and local communities prepare for AAM operations by initiating the planning process that would better define how vertiports will complement existing infrastructure and transit and, if certain conditions are met, for constructing vertiports and associated infrastructure.
There’s also the AAM Coordination and Leadership Act, which looks to create a working group between the FAA and other agencies with an interest in AAM. “Having broad, intra-agency coordination is imperative to ensuring that the government takes the necessary steps to launch AAM operations once the industry is ready with the technology,” said Cooper.
Looking slightly further ahead, Cooper noted that the periodic NASA and FAA reauthorization bills represent an opportunity to advocate for these agencies to play a bigger role in AAM supply chains. “We want to make sure they receive the necessary funding to not only continue their current programs but to expand into other areas that might benefit our sector,” she added.
Another opportunity that Supernal and other companies are pursuing is legislation favorable to the buildout of an electric aviation charging infrastructure network. In November 2021, parent company Hyundai Motor group confirmed its intention to bring the five-seat SA-1 vehicle into commercial service by 2028, adding that it expects to start the FAA's type certification process in 2024.
While the federal level may be full of regulatory opportunities, opportunities within state and local governments, while numerous, are at times a bit more challenging. Take, for example, the many local rules and regulations restricting the use of existing commercial and consumer drones. “Even though these laws are intended to regulate small drones, they are often written in a way that could have major implications for AAM,” explained Cooper.
Cooper said that there are currently over 200 laws and proposed bills designed to regulate uncrewed aircraft systems in some way, including ordinances in such major cities as Chicago and New York that create significant restrictions for autonomous and remotely piloted operations. Of particular concern to the AAM industry are navigation easements or airspace leasing restrictions. Because these easements limit flights to specific areas, they are problematic for the AAM industry which, due to battery life issues, needs to be free to fly the fastest, most efficient route possible. Additionally, because they drastically restrict where operations can occur, they have the effect of completely cutting off many communities’ ability to access AAM.
“This is why it is so important that our industry work with local lawmakers and be a resource in highlighting the FAA’s role in regulating airspace and ensuring aviation safety,” said Cooper. “Failure to do so could result in the passage of more bills that challenge the FAA’s authority, potentially creating a patchwork of different operating environments.”
There is also a strong safety rationale for maintaining a single airspace regulator. Consider that the U.S. once had two airspace regulators, one for civil aviation and one for the military. Following a series of deadly midair collisions in the 1950s, the federal government decided to unify airspace regulations under the FAA.
“We know that a patchwork approach to airspace regulation does not work, and we need to keep this unfortunate history in mind when we see a bill that potentially challenges the FAA’s absolute authority of our airspace,” added Cooper.
It’s also important to note that state and local governments have a significant role in the development and success of the AAM industry. “Land use, zoning, multimodal connectivity, workforce development, and infrastructure are all critical aspects to the AAM industry that require state and local guidance,” said Cooper. “AAM is a transformative industry with the potential to improve our lives for the better, but we can only achieve this if governments, communities, and industry work together.”
So, what can the industry do? Well, according to Cooper, the best way to tackle these challenges is through education. “We need to engage with communities and local decision-makers, raise awareness about our industry, talk about our exciting clean technologies, and demonstrate how AAM will bring real value to people’s daily lives,” she concluded. “This is how we build local support and ensure that, when the industry is ready, we’re able to best meet the transportation needs of people and communities.”