Regulatory and Operational Challenges of On-Demand Mobility Written 11 January 2018

Panelists: Moderator Tom Gunnarson, regulatory affairs lead, Zee Aero; Gregory J. Bowles, vice president of global innovation and policy, General Aviation Manufacturers Association; Carl Dietrich, chief technology officer and co-founder, Terrafugia; Eric Mueller, aerospace engineer, NASA’s Ames Research Center; Sasha G. Rao, chair of intellectual property practice, Maynard Cooper & Gale; Wes Ryan, unmanned systems certification lead, FAA

by Lawrence Garrett, AIAA Web Editor

Participants in the discussion, “On-Demand Mobility – Regulatory and Operational Challenges,” Jan. 10 at the 2018 Science and Technology Forum in Kissimmee, Fla.

Overcoming regulatory and operational barriers to achieve the dream of high-density urban mobility requires close collaboration between industry, government and academia, along with an incremental and methodical approach, said experts Jan. 10 during the “On-Demand Mobility – Regulatory and Operational Challenges” panel at the 2018 AIAA SciTech Forum in Kissimmee, Florida.

Rapid technological advancements in electric vertical takeoff and landing craft, or eVTOLs, and autonomous systems are making future on-demand urban mobility a certainty, panelists said. But, as panel moderator Tom Gunnarson of Zee Aero cautioned: “If we think about the men and women out there who are developing these fantastic machines, there has to be a path set before they can actually realize what they want to do with them.”

Gunnarson suggested the technological challenges posed by urban air mobility are unlikely to be as challenging as regulatory and operational ones.

“The really big bar in all of this may not be the development of the aircraft, but being able to operate it,” he said.

Gregory J. Bowles, vice president of global innovation and policy at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, wondered about FAA certification for new types of personal aerial vehicles and other autonomous eVTOL aircraft when they don’t fit under the current categories. He said that industry, in collaboration with government, needs to figure out where “we define these vehicles.”

Another significant challenge, Bowles said, is how to train future pilots of these aircraft, as well as what they’ll be trained to do. He noted it’s unlikely these aircraft will be totally autonomous initially.

“Some will have operators; some will have pilots,” Bowles said. “We need to look at what the human pilot does, what automation can do today and where’s that gap; that’s what needs to be trained.”

Wes Ryan, the unmanned systems certification lead for the FAA, said industry and academia should work with the FAA and NASA “to create a purposeful and evolutionary path to address the design of, the testing of, the operation of these pilotless aircraft at some point in the future.”

Carl Dietrich, chief technology officer and co-founder of Terrafugia, a Massachusetts-based company specializing in the development of flying cars expected to hit the market in 2019, said his company’s primary challenges are ensuring a potential market exists — and safety.

“We’re worried about our brand; we’re worried about liability,” he said, adding there are other concerns, such as rate of return, how quickly certification requirements can be determined or how complex a given supply chain may be.

But, Dietrich said, to realize the benefits of a potential market, a key challenge will be overcoming societal fear. He noted that if catastrophic accidents occur in a fully deployed on-demand urban mobility system at the same rate as auto accidents, they would equate to over 6,000 globally in a given year. Minimizing societal fear, Dietrich explained, must be done “at a very, very early stage; otherwise we’re going to be dead in the water as soon as someone gets out there with a vehicle and crashes.”

Airspace integration issues are another significant challenge, said Eric Mueller, an aerospace engineer at the NASA’s Ames Research Center. He noted that while it may be easy dealing with only a handful of aircraft aloft, it will become exponentially more challenging when also dealing with a number of Uber or Voom aircraft that want to share the same airspace.

“We need to have rules for those interactions and really consensus that those are fair rules,” he said. “An incremental or methodical approach to airspace integration, I think, can achieve this high-density urban air mobility operation.”

Sasha G. Rao, an attorney and chair of intellectual property practice at Alabama-based Maynard Cooper & Gale, cited three key legal and policy areas to consider regarding on-demand mobility: operations and infrastructure; how to work within the confines of the current patchwork of federal, state and local laws; and vehicle certification. She said it’s important to build a safety-case for personal aerial vehicles while developing standards that are much better than cars and what people see on the roads.

“And we have to educate the public to gain their acceptance,” Rao said.


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