“Sixty-years ago – when President Kennedy sat in the Oval Office – the idea of futurism picked up speed.
“The jet age began. The space race was underway. And the idea of flying cars created an impression in many people’s minds while inspiring a generation.
“Many years have passed, but the notion of flying cars never left America’s imagination.”
Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen spoke these words at the White House Summit on Advanced Air Mobility, held on Aug. 3. During the summit, federal officials and aviation industry leaders talked about how the notion of flying cars will be realized. They discussed the evolution and safe integration of drones and advanced air mobility (AAM) into the national airspace.
Nolen began by talking about drones: “More than 860,000 drones are registered today in the United States. To put this into context, that’s more than three times as many crewed aircraft.
“By 2025, we could have a total of more than 2.6 million commercial and recreational drones flying in our airspace, according to FAA forecasts.
“It’s critical that we have a standard set of rules for operations beyond visual line of sight – or BVLOS, as we call it – where you no longer have eyes on the drone. This would enable operations for things like routine package deliveries, infrastructure inspections and agriculture spraying and inspection.
“We’re working closely with the drone community to make these kinds of operations routine, scalable and economically viable. As you can image, this is a huge collaborative effort.
“We just heard from the chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. As part of an integration program called BEYOND, we’re working with them, and numerous other organizations —including states like Kansas, North Dakota, North Carolina, the city of Reno, Nevada and others — to understand the ups and downs of BVLOS.
“Through BEYOND, we’re able to learn about and address state and local government concerns about drone operations – concerns related to safety, security, noise and privacy, to name a few.
“And we’re also partnering with more than 20 companies to safely advance complex drone operational capabilities.
“For instance, we’re working with Xcel Energy to conduct inspections of their power transmission lines.
“These partnerships help us to identify and mitigate safety hazards in a way that allows the industry to gain experience and develop industry consensus standards.
“And the FAA is currently reviewing recently received recommendations from an aviation rulemaking committee on how to enable safe, routine, BVLOS operations.
“All of these efforts are enabling us to execute an integration strategy for new airspace entrants in which the more complex or higher risk the operation, the higher the level of safety that needs to be achieved.”
Aircraft operations that carry people are going to require a higher level of performance and oversight, he said, introducing the topic of AAM.
“Through AAM, he said, "we could potentially see electric-powered air taxis land in your city, and transport you across town or maybe to the airport in just minutes, whereas the same trip by car would have taken much longer.
“AAM aircraft could also be used to transport large cargo, or help with firefighting, air ambulance and search and rescue operations.
“And AAM could eventually be a more equitable form of transportation, as it has the potential to connect underserved and rural communities with larger cities. This could be especially beneficial for communities that are reliant on aviation, like in Alaska.
“And because these vehicles would be electric-powered, they could offer a more sustainable method of transportation.
“This technology is on its way. In fact, two companies expect to earn FAA certification of their vehicles as early as 2024.
“We’ve received many proposals for a diverse set of AAM concepts. Some have pilots on board the aircraft, some are remotely piloted, and sometimes the aircraft is autonomous.
“We’re looking at every aspect of this enterprise – the vehicle itself, the framework for operations, access to the airspace, operator training, infrastructure development, and community engagement.
“In other words, it’s not just about air taxis. It’s also about everything necessary to support air taxi flights.
“As these vehicles are being developed, the FAA is working to establish operational rules and pilot training standards. And we’re looking at how to best integrate these new vehicles into the national airspace system.
“We’re modifying our regulatory approach to enable powered lift operations including the certification of powered-lift vehicles and the pilots who operate them.
“Longer term, the agency plans to continue to develop permanent regulations to safely enable powered-lift operations and pilot training and certification.
“AAM also has unique qualities compared to traditional aviation. So we must also think differently.”
For example, he said aircraft pilots are traditionally required to communicate with air traffic controllers.
“But what if the software that enables an autonomous vehicle to remain aloft also allows it to safely separate itself from other aircraft? he asked.
“As with all aspects of aviation that came before, this new era will be an evolution, where advancement to the next step will be based on safety. As safety regulators, it is the job of the FAA and its counterparts around the world to help ensure that innovation doesn’t come at the expense of safety.
"We must see safety as an enabler, because nothing will ground these innovations faster than incidents or accidents.
"And just like with drones, we are learning about and addressing local community concerns about AAM operations in and around metropolitan areas.
"For this effort, we’re engaging with state, local, and tribal governments and communities.
"One of our initiatives is working with NASA on a national campaign to help communities learn about AAM. We’ve been testing AAM concepts, and collecting data in areas like automated flight plan communications, BVLOS, traffic avoidance, trajectory management and approach to landing and takeoff areas.
"There’s a lot of work to do to move toward AAM integration and we will need a broad collection of voices at the table. We encourage communities to get involved now, while we’re in these early phases, and we need to continue to hear from industry, many of whom are represented here today.
"We’re also reaching out globally. Many of the players seeking to operate AAM in the U.S. are also seeking to operate in other countries.
"So, the FAA is working with civil aviation authorities from other nations to explore how we can harmonize our integration strategies.
"Two weeks ago, I was in the UK meeting with aviation officials in government and industry throughout the world.
"And I was encouraged to see that several American and British manufacturers of AAM vehicles are moving through their home country’s certification process and now asking their American or UK counterpart for validation.
"We’re working to establish these processes. One example is a group called the National Aviation Authorities Network, which is a partnership involving the FAA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
"Through this group, we’re looking at how we might align our certification processes and standards for AAM aircraft. And we’re eager to work with other nations so we can exchange expertise and share progress with each other.
"Just a short time ago, the idea of having prescription medication airlifted to your front door during a pandemic or taking a flying car to the airport was the stuff of science fiction.
"Today, there is a real chance that these technologies could become a daily reality."