For the past decade, dozens of start-ups have been raising billions of dollars to develop a new breed of aircraft tapping more sustainable electric propulsion and autonomous flight technology, with the promise of revolutionizing the way people and cargo get around. Although it is still very much a nascent industry, 2022 has proven to be a pivotal year for advanced air mobility (AAM), as vehicle manufacturers and regulators alike have taken some monumental steps toward making that dream a reality. All of the progress this year set the stage for a busy 2023 in terms of infrastructure, certification, and technological advancements.
“As you all know, 2022 has been a remarkable year for this industry. And in a lot of ways, it's a milestone in the evolution of advanced air mobility,” NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen said during a panel discussion at Honeywell's Air Mobility Summit, which was held in September in Washington, D.C. Bolen pointed to the attention the emerging market began to get in the mainstream media, the formation of the Advanced Air Mobility caucus on Capitol Hill in June, then a "tremendous number of announcements over the course of the summer, and a lot of excitement as we're beginning to look forward to a new year."
Historic First Flights
One of the most notable milestones was the first-ever flight of a fully electric commuter airplane, Eviation’s nine-seat Alice, which made its inaugural test flight over the desert of Washington state in late September.
But the Alice wasn’t the only electric aircraft to make a debut flight this year. In June, Tier 1 Engineering conducted the first flight of an all-electric Robinson R44 helicopter. Then in October, the fully electric R44 completed its first airport-to-airport flight, traveling 21 nm from Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport in Thermal, California, to Palm Springs International Airport.
Canadian seaplane operator Harbour Air also achieved the first point-to-point flight of an electrically powered de Havilland Beaver prototype aircraft, also known as the eBeaver, in August of this year.
Other companies working on electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft have made significant progress in their flight testing campaigns this year as well. Just days before Eviation’s Alice took to the skies for the first time, the UK-based startup Vertical Aerospace achieved a first tethered takeoff with its piloted, four-passenger VX4 eVTOL aircraft.
In June, the Israeli start-up Air also conducted the first tethered hover tests of the Air One eVTOL, a foldable, two-seat aircraft designed to function as a personal vehicle rather than an air taxi. Around the same time, Ohio-based Ryse Aero Technologies began conducting the first piloted flight tests of its ultralight, single-seat Recon eVTOL aircraft, which is intended for use by the agricultural community.
Hydrogen on the Horizon
While more electric aircraft are starting to get off the ground, plans for hydrogen-powered aircraft are moving full speed ahead as well. Universal Hydrogen recently announced its plans to fly the first-ever hydrogen-powered regional airliner by the end of this year using a hydrogen-fuel-cell-based powertrain in a converted de Havilland Dash 8-300 turboprop. Its rival ZeroAvia also expects to achieve a first flight using a Dornier 228 testbed before the end of 2022.
Meanwhile, the Dutch student research team AeroDelft has begun the flight test campaign for its Phoenix hydrogen-powered aircraft. AeroDelft’s remotely piloted Phoenix prototype made its first electric battery-powered flights this year, and the team says it will conduct its first flight using a hydrogen gas powertrain in 2023, with the goal of developing a piloted, liquid hydrogen-powered aircraft by 2025. The team recently partnered with Airbus, another pioneer in hydrogen propulsion that’s working to introduce a hydrogen-powered airliner by 2035.
MagniX, the company that provides electric propulsion systems for Eviation’s Alice and the electric R44, also recently announced plans to begin producing hydrogen fuel cells for future hydrogen-powered aircraft.
Building eVTOL Infrastructure
While OEMs have made headway with the development and testing of their various aircraft, the world still lacks the necessary infrastructure to support eVTOL operations. However, in September the FAA laid the groundwork for eVTOL ground infrastructure by issuing its first guidelines for the design and construction of vertiports.
The FAA’s Engineering Brief No. 105, Vertiport Design, will open the door for vertiport developers to refine their designs and begin breaking ground on new eVTOL vertiports in the U.S. In 2023, Volatus Infrastructure CEO Grant Fisk told AIN. Volatus Infrastructure plans to open the nation’s first eVTOL vertiport next year at Wittman Regional Airport (KOSH) in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and aims to break ground on the $500,000 facility in the spring of 2023.
In its engineering brief, the FAA noted that this vertiport guidance is interim and will likely evolve as the eVTOL industry matures and more real-world flight data becomes available.
New certification basis
So far no eVTOL developers have had their aircraft certified by the FAA, but several companies are ramping up testing next year with plans to achieve type certification in 2024 with a subsequent entry into service by 2025. Earlier this year, the FAA shook up the industry by changing the certification pathway for eVTOL aircraft. Despite the controversy over the new rule, eVTOL developers have said the change won’t impact their certification timelines.
Rather than classifying winged eVTOLs as small airplanes under the FAA’s Part 23 rules, the agency decided to treat them as a special class of powered-lift aircraft regulated under Section 21.17 (b) rules, which traditionally applied to very light aircraft such as sailplanes and drones. Now the FAA must scramble to expedite the development and publication of a special federal aviation regulation to address associated commercial operations and training aspects for 21.17 (b) aircraft.