U.S. legislation would help fund local planning for advanced air mobility

Lawmaker cautions that funds should be for public infrastructure

Congress is preparing to vote on bills that would provide $25 million in advanced air mobility funding over two years to local and state governments to prepare for the coming air taxi services.

FAA should view “this as the first step in a longer-term effort to ensure that we safely integrate these platforms into the airspace as opposed to having that happen to us,” U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who filed the House bill, told me in a phone interview.

“We need to start thinking about these platforms as part of the airspace now, and to be sending that signal to the FAA that they need to be planning on this as well.”

Larsen’s bill in the House is awaiting a vote by the full chamber, while a similar bill in the Senate is still awaiting a committee hearing. Both are styled as the Advanced Aviation Infrastructure Modernization Act.

Larsen said the bill would bar the proposed federal grants — which would be capped at $1 million per applicant — from being made available to states until FAA certifies operations by two AAM companies in a field where dozens are competing for billions in investment funding.

So far, only California-based Joby Aviation has received its air carrier certification, although not for its electric aircraft.

Larsen said he wants to see local and state planning begin soon, because he expects the industry to start booming around 2028.

There’s a need to develop standards for things like use of public airspace and vertiports before FAA certifies aircraft and operations, said Larsen, who chairs the aviation subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“You do not want companies building exclusive vertiports for exclusive use by an exclusive group of people,” Larsen said.

He said he hopes the nation has learned lessons from the rapid introduction of drones for hobbyists and commercial use before FAA had a regulatory framework for them.

The AAM funding could be used to build infrastructure if a local government has planned properly, Larsen said. “We just really want to wait until the FAA has standards to build, before public entities start putting serious money into construction.”

Several local and state governments have, through partnerships with NASA, begun “to consider how emerging vehicles can best be included in their civic transportation plans,” according to NASA’s description of its joint effort with FAA to foster this proposed new mode of local and regional transportation.

So far, Orlando, Florida, is the only city government to participate in that effort. Seventy-five million tourists arrived in the city in 2019, according to Visit Orlando, the region’s tourism association, mostly to visit the numerous nearby theme parks, including Disney World. That and the city’s relative proximity to other major cities have made Orlando a potential early market for AAM, with Munich-based Lilium announcing plans in 2020 to build a vertiport there.

Orlando city officials don’t expect any aircraft to be ready for at least 18 months, Jacques Coulon, the city’s transportation planning projects coordinator, told me. He said the city would likely apply for any federal funding made available for AAM planning.

“That’s something we would definitely look at, as being at the forefront, and really trying to set the best policies as possible,” Coulon said.

Orlando learned some lessons from the sudden arrival of Uber in the city in 2014, and subsequent arrival of bike- and scooter-sharing companies, he said. The city rewrote ordinances to address such ride-sharing services and fielded complaints when bikes were dropped on private property.

“The biggest challenge for the city is public education,” Coulon said. “A lot of people will see [air taxis] and think it’s like a helicopter ride, but this is a very different technology. We want to get the community educated before they start flying over anybody’s neighborhoods or businesses.”

The city doesn’t intend to designate sites for vertiports, but it may encourage their locations in some places through zoning.

“We definitely anticipate having to make some updates to our current ordinances,” he said, adding that private vertiports may be allowed.

“Our approach will be carrier neutral, site neutral,” he said when asked if Lilium had any exclusive arrangements with the city. The German startup in 2020 struck a deal with Tavistock Group, developer of the Lake Nona master-planned community near Orlando International Airport, to build the vertiport there.

Initial operations with limited air taxi service probably won’t require much infrastructure, said Robin Riedel, a partner with Washington, D.C., consulting firm McKinsey who specializes in AAM.

But more intensive, widespread service could require new communications networks and even a network of radar weather stations, he said. And the need for “last-mile” connections could limit rollout of AAM service in many cities, he told me.

“It’s all fine if you’re talking about ‘Hey, we’re going to have some people fly from the airport to downtown,’” Riedel said. “You can do that with existing regulation, and you don’t really need anything new. But if you’re talking about hundreds of these things flying also with drones, and same airspace, there is some real investment to be made to enable the airspace but also the ground.”

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U.S. legislation would help fund local planning for advanced air mobility