AIAA Aviation: Time for U.S. to get serious about electric, hybrid flight, report’s author says

Congress should make advanced aerial mobility — the concept of new electric and hybrid aircraft delivering people and packages in novel ways — a national priority, the lead author of a NASA-sponsored report said today.

“If the United States doesn’t get together and help establish the rules and the processes so that the system can grow, then someone else will,” said Nick Lappos, chairman of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s committee on enhancing air mobility, speaking Thursday at the AIAA Aviation Forum, held via video conference. “It will be done somewhere else, somewhere with a government that can simply decree it to be necessary. And then we may be left with air vehicles developed for that marketplace that we have to adapt for ours.”

Lappos spoke at the forum with other authors about the findings of their National Academies report, “Advancing Aerial Mobility: A National Blueprint.” NASA commissioned the peer-reviewed report, published in February, to examine the potential benefits and challenges of the new mode of transportation. NASA coined the term advanced air, or aerial, mobility as a more all-encompassing description of what had been commonly known as urban air mobility; AAM includes rural and suburban applications and package delivery.

Besides fostering AAM as a national priority, action by Congress is needed to give public agencies like NASA and FAA increased budgets to help develop the regulations, testing facilities, cybersecurity and air traffic control systems that AAM will need, said Lappos, a senior technical fellow at Sikorsky.

Air traffic control systems should be a top priority, Lappos said.

“That piece of technology which doesn’t exist which would explode the system is the air traffic management system,” he said. “Right now, the FAA has declared that all participants in the future national airspace system will conduct see-and-be-seen — that’s the philosophy that every air vehicle can see every other air vehicle and avoid them. That is a great concept — for 1955 when airplanes are around. It’s not a particularly good concept when you’ve got 1,000 air vehicles over New York City and some of them are carrying a pizza.”

There also has to be a leap forward in safety standards when AAM adds an expected 100 to 1,000 times more vehicles to the skies, Lappos said. If current standards that allow for a major airplane crash every three to four years were continued, the increased air traffic would translate to a major crash every third day — a pace that the public would obviously find unacceptable, and AAM would lose public support, he said.

One reason AAM holds so much promise is that it could open up a new world of transportation for distances that are too long for cars and too short for commercial air travel, said Peter Shannon, another author of the report.

“So many areas in our country are separated by the practicalities of road congestion, the availability of road networks and the hub-and-spoke structure of our airline network,” said Shannon, who is managing director of Radius Capital. “Standing right in front of us is this hidden opportunity to provide access and connectivity, and exchange of ideas that have economic value, that have societal value, if it’s easier for us to move amongst each other.”


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AIAA Aviation: Time for U.S. to get serious about electric, hybrid flight, report’s author says