The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) recently published a common set of conditions for the certification of new vertical and take-off (VTOL) aircraft, including eVTOLs. This framework is the first building block for manufacturers aiming to develop small VTOL aircraft to European certification standards.
Today, more than 150 eVTOL concepts—led by manufacturers ranging from major industry players to start-ups—are currently in development. And technological progress has been so promising—and swift—that the nascent urban air mobility industry is expected to reach a market value of $7.9 billion by 2030.
However, the rapid growth of this new class of aerial vehicles is posing a number of serious regulatory challenges. This includes challenges related to diversity (i.e. how do we certify air vehicle design?) and complexity (i.e. how do we manage our airspace, and reduce noise and visual impact?). Addressing these challenges is critical to public acceptance, which is why airworthiness certification standards are widely considered one of the first building blocks to ensuring the safe integration of eVTOL aircraft into urban environments.
The establishment of a common set of conditions for the certification of these new concepts of vehicles will enable a fair competition on the European market, as well as clarity for future manufacturers and their investors
-Patrick Ky, EASA Executive Director
EASA recently took a noteworthy step in this direction. In July 2019, EASA published a “Special Condition” for small VTOL aircraft operation. The basic framework of the special condition is the result of a public consultation initiated in October 2018 with a variety of industry stakeholders. It covers aircraft with passenger-seating configuration of nine or fewer, as well as a maximum take-off weight of 3,175 kg.
“The establishment of a common set of conditions for the certification of these new concepts of vehicles will enable a fair competition on the European market, as well as clarity for future manufacturers and their investors,” EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky said in a statement.
Building urban air mobility regulation from scratch
To shape the definition of its special condition, EASA invited stakeholders to provide their input. More than 1,000 companies and individuals, including Airbus, submitted their feedback regarding standards for small VTOL aircraft certification.
Feedback covered a variety of topics, including cyber security, the distinctions between different forms of propulsion systems, and the rules for autonomous and remote-piloted aircraft control systems. Airbus requested the inclusion of a clearer distinction between new forms of VTOL aircraft and conventional rotorcraft (or fixed-wing) vehicles.
Airbus’ suggestion—provided by the Airbus Urban Mobility team—was partially accepted by EASA, which agreed to clarify the distinction by focusing on small VTOL aircraft with distributed propulsion rather than aircraft with the capability to perform an autorotation or controlled glide.
Avoiding the “wild west” in eVTOL operations
EASA is one of many airworthiness certification bodies addressing the issue of eVTOL operations. Earlier in 2019, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) released its own guidance on unmanned aerial vehicle airworthiness certification after consulting with five Chinese VTOL manufacturers, including EHang. CAAC plans to finalise a framework by the end of the year.
In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is also working to make sure eVTOL aircraft enter into service with the right safety legislation in place. In April 2019, the FAA issued its first airworthiness approval for unmanned drone deliveries to Wing, owned by Google parent company Alphabet.
Speaking at an event in June, acting FAA head Dan Elwell underscored the importance of avoiding the “wild west” situation that had resulted with the emergence of drones. “With drones, a whole new market appeared overnight, and we were left behind,” he said. “That is why we’re working with everyone to get it right this time.”
As more and more regulatory agencies and certification bodies work towards defining a framework for eVTOL operations, the chances of avoiding such a situation have never been better.