United Nations standards group increases focus on plans for revolutionary aircraft

New emphasis to begin with an international symposium

Advanced air mobility, the coming genre of electric and hybrid aircraft of various sizes, is receiving heightened attention from the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations standards agency.

ICAO’s members had instructed the agency in 2022 to form a study group to start assessing the AAM field. That’s an umbrella term that right now lacks an internationally agreed-upon definition but to most industry officials includes electric delivery drones, air taxis, electrified regional aircraft and the infrastructure they will need.

About a year later, the organization said it planned to hold an inaugural “Advanced Air Mobility Symposium” in September of this year in Montreal. Attendees of the event — whose theme is “global harmonization and interoperability,” according to an online ICAO announcement — are expected to range from representatives of ICAO member nations, their aviation regulators and organizations, and aircraft manufacturers and service providers.

The concern is that without international coordination on standards leading to common regulations around the world, aircraft manufacturers will find themselves unable to sell their wares in certain nations, and an operator’s aircraft won’t be permitted to cross certain national borders.

“The pan is boiling,” Thomas Bombaert, an ICAO technical officer and secretary of the agency’s AAM Study Group, tells me. “I mean boiling in a sense that it’s just a matter of time before we begin to formulate standards and recommended practices. Everybody’s asking for that, but ICAO is slow to start working, and we first need information from the [member nations] to bring them together.”

The goal is to set ICAO on a pathway toward establishing standards for AAM aircraft and the “ecosystem” they must operate in, says Bombaert. “For now, it’s really almost at a conceptual level, trying to gather experts from around the world and define, assess what advanced air mobility really is.”

Such global harmonization is sorely needed, says Richard “Pat” Anderson, a pilot and professor of aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and the director of the university’s Eagle Flight Research Center.

“We have literally hundreds of fledgling companies around the globe trying to do everything from short trips, urban air mobility stuff, up to supersonic aircraft,” Anderson says. “I mean, it’s definitely an interesting time, but they [nations, companies and aviation organizations] are definitely not all on the same page right now, and ICAO has the clout, is a high enough umbrella organization, that they can pull the factions together.”

Bombaert says the symposium will help his study group establish the “major buckets” of issues, meaning topics, that need to be addressed by ICAO member nations. As an example, one topic will center on how the aircraft will be flown.

“We are starting to see an agreement in the industry that visual flight rules and instrument flight rules will not be enough for these operations to perform in an efficient and scalable manner,” he says. “And that will be a huge undertaking, because VFR standards have been around for 75 years, if not more.”

Autonomous flight would save pilot costs, but Bombaert cautions: “It’s useless to start rushing into that because there is a need for the industry to mature and to test and to be able to report data” on such operations before global standards can be defined.

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United Nations standards group increases focus on plans for revolutionary aircraft