Point of Law: A Path To Urban Air Mobility
What is urban air mobility (UAM)? According to the FAA, UAM “envisions a safe and efficient aviation transportation system that will use highly automated aircraft that will operate and transport passengers or cargo at lower altitudes within urban and suburban areas.” Advanced air mobility (AAM) is the label for UAM that goes beyond the urban environment.
The FAA's NextGen staff writes these futuristic sounding definitions. To those of us who have been using “highly automated” helicopters in “urban and suburban areas,” this is just a new label on what air medical and executive helicopters have been doing quite well for years.
Melissa Tomkiel is president of Blade Urban Air Mobility. Unlike other companies that merely produce futuristic animations about UAM, Blade has been providing UAM for years now, using chartered helicopters and airplanes.
Tomkiel sees a straightforward path from the UAM of today to the UAM depicted in the animated videos. The first step is to simply switch existing, piloted helicopters to electric power. She has been working hard to educate communities that electric is just around the corner, and it will be quieter than today’s aircraft. Because Blade is already in the real-world UAM business, she sees more pressing concerns than the companies that are years away from being able to sell a flight.
Tomkiel is rightly concerned about preserving existing infrastructure. Noise kills heliports and airports. By letting people know that a greener, quieter future is closer than it might appear, she hopes to prevent the loss of existing landing sites. Once these electric aircraft prove to be quieter, opening more heliports will be much easier than it is today.
The FAA NextGen team says: “The initial UAM ecosystem will utilize existing helicopter infrastructure such as routes, helipads and air traffic control services, where practicable given the aircraft characteristics. Looking toward the future, the FAA is working to identify infrastructure design needs for these aircraft. The FAA expects to develop a new vertiport standard in the coming years.”
Will a “vertiport” really be different than a “heliport?” Time will tell. In the meantime, infrastructure is not the only UAM regulatory challenge. The FAA is also looking at aircraft, airspace and operating regulations.
Lindsey McFarren, president of McFarren Aviation Consulting, is a UAM expert working with a number of industry groups and UAM players. “At first glance, there are almost too many regulatory hurdles to count to allow UAM/AAM to become large-scale operations, but on deeper inspection, the hurdles are manageable with existing processes,” McFarren says. “The FAA’s recent focus on performance-based standards is a critical component to the success of innovative products and services, as the agency has already demonstrated with commercial unmanned aircraft systems certification and exemption processes.”
Today, UAM helicopters fly under FAR Part 135. That is not likely to change. So, because Part 135 only envisions airplanes and helicopters, it does not benefit a future air carrier to claim that their aircraft is not an airplane or a helicopter. This language problem is common in the UAM world. Tech folks who have never been part of a highly regulated industry don’t understand the challenges that they take on by trying to change the FAA’s technical descriptions.
If your aircraft only has rotors, call it a helicopter. And, for now at least, put a pilot in it if you are going to carry passengers. The FAA has a long history of treating cargo air carriers differently than passenger air carriers. These precedents will serve the cargo charter industry as it moves into the electric, and even “remote pilot” future.
But don’t expect Part 135 to change that much in the near future. Rulemaking is hard, and it takes a long time. Tomorrow’s drone pilots will still have to sit through Part 135 indoctrination and endure all of the paperwork that today’s pilots deal with. And since Part 135 requires even single-pilot flyers to learn crew resource management (CRM), it is likely that tomorrow’s charter drone pilots will learn CRM for aircraft with no cockpit and no crew.
Just as today’s UAM operators use today’s charter rules, they also use today’s air traffic control (ATC). A great deal has been written about future, non-piloted (“self-piloted”) UAM. Some believe that the sky will be darkened by streams of UAM aircraft flowing through special corridors. When Eclipse first proposed selling a very light jet for about $800,000, there was a great deal of discussion about how the number of Eclipses in the sky would block out the sun. Sadly, you still can’t buy a brand-new jet for $800,000.
The same will be true for future UAM. These new aircraft will be quieter and greener, but they will still cost money to buy and operate, and they won’t be for absolutely everyone. So, for some time to come, UAM will use ATC just as UAM piloted, turbine-powered helicopters work with ATC today. In time, there will be special corridors, and “detect and avoid” will replace “see and avoid,” but look for cargo to lead the way on those changes.
If you want to understand the UAM of tomorrow, study the UAM of today. The FAA will use the strong foundations of existing charter UAM operations to build the future.