Transformational flight prototyping strong in 2020
By Kenneth H. Goodrich and Michael D. Patterson|December 2020
The Transformational Flight Integration Committee serves as a focal point for a community of practice engaged in technical, business and societal issues associated with transformational approaches to on-demand air mobility enabled by the convergence of advanced technologies.
The advanced air mobility community experienced a range of advancements along with a few setbacks during the year. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the Hyundai Motor Group unveiled a program to develop urban air mobility aircraft integrated with autonomous, purpose-built vehicles and transportation hubs.
In February, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report titled “Advancing Aerial Mobility: A National Blueprint.” It strongly endorsed AAM as a new frontier in aeronautics and mobility and highlighted the importance of public acceptance of AAM, particularly in the areas of safety, noise and privacy. In late February, the GoFly competition hosted its Final Fly Off event at Moffett Airfield near San Francisco. Due to high winds, none of the final four teams attempted to complete the flight challenge task, and the $1 million grand prize is still available. Tokyo-based teTra Aviation received the $100,000 Disruptor Award for innovation.
NASA announced partnership agreements in March with 17 companies supporting developmental testing for the AAM National Campaign, scheduled for summer 2022. The companies include 11 airspace simulation partners and five vehicle information exchange partners. Also in March, NASA kicked off the AAM ecosystem working groups, a public forum to discuss AAM development. In April, the U.S. Air Force hosted Launch Week for its Agility Prime initiative. Agility Prime is a nontraditional program to accelerate the commercial market for AAM vehicles through use of innovative procurement methods. Joby Aviation and Beta Technologies have advanced to Phase III of the Initial Capabilities Opening. Completion of Phase III enables companies to receive Air Force support for prototype aircraft development and testing and the Air Force to act as a launch customer for production aircraft.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency in June granted a light-sport aircraft type certificate to Pipistrel’s Velis Electro, making it the first fully electric aircraft to be type certified, a milestone three years in the making. In September, Pipistrel unveiled a new hybrid-electric, uncrewed, vertical takeoff and landing cargo aircraft, the Nuuva V300, to carry up to 460 kilograms of cargo. The company is prioritizing the development of this new aircraft over its passenger electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and expects initial operation of the V300 to begin in approximately 2023.
In June, FAA’s NextGen Office released a concept of operations for urban air mobility. Targeted at early passenger operations, the concept of operations proposes operations in corridors between UAM aerodrome pairs. These corridors would be managed through a combination of community-based rules and third-party services, with the goal of introducing high-density UAM routes with limited impact on traditional air traffic control.
In July, eHang showcased remotely piloted, passenger UAM operations with four demonstration flights conducted from Yantai, China.
The year was also not without setbacks that indicate some of the difficulties in enabling transformational flight. In January, electric regional aircraft developer Eviation lost a prototype aircraft to a battery fire on the ground in Arizona. Similarly, in February, German-based eVTOL aircraft developer Lilium lost one of its prototypes to a ground battery fire near Munich. However, both companies have continued their development.
Overall, progress in transformational flight has remained strong in 2020, and the ecosystem is pushing to begin multiple novel forms of operations in the 2023-2024 time frame.