At Congressional hearings on Thursday, leaders from government and industry addressed the ongoing challenges of integrating unmanned aircraft and new generation vertical and takeoff air taxis into the National Airspace System. Citing technological advances in Japan and China, House aviation subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) said that the FAA “needed to stay ahead” of new technology such as eVTOLs so the U.S. can maintain its “global leadership in aviation.” This includes devising and implementing a strategy to safely integrate UAS and eVTOLs into the National Airspace System and ensure that counter-UAS systems did not interfere with air traffic control and the avionics of lawfully operated aircraft.
Shelley Yak, director of the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center, noted that the FAA's incremental UAS integration strategy builds on the addition of more complex operations over time, including operations over people, beyond visual line of sight, small package delivery, routine/scheduled operations, large carrier cargo, and passenger transport. She said that as of August 2018, 90 percent of the 1,800 approved waivers for Part 107 commercial unmanned operations have been for night flying, while the remainder have been for operations including flights over persons or flights beyond visual line of sight. Commercial activities that typically receive waivers are filmmaking, photography, and infrastructure inspections. She said that the processing time for Part 107 waivers had been cut from 90 to 20 days. Yak added her voice to the long list of FAA officials critical of Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012—the model aircraft exemption. Yak said the exemption, which she claimed fosters the “perception by many recreational UAS operators that they are not required to follow the basic rules of UAS operation” present “risks to both manned and unmanned compliant operators” and “makes it difficult for the FAA to develop new regulatory approaches that will help expand and facilitate more advanced uses of UAS in the NAS.”
Thomas Prevort, Uber director of airspace engineering, and JoeBen Bevirt, CEO of Joby Aviation, said that developing eVTOLs is a sensible and cost-effective solution to the nation's decaying urban ground transportation infrastructure. Citing congestion in leading cities including Seattle and Los Angeles, Prevort said, “We believe aerial ridesharing and drone deliveries have the potential to radically improve urban life...urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground.” Prevort said Uber intends to go large into urban markets. “We intend to fly thousands of aircraft in each metropolitan market that we serve.” Prevort pointed out that Uber is working with NASA on both Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM) and Urban Air Mobility (UAM) initiatives. Uber is also participating in the FAA's UAS Integration Pilot Program in cooperation with the City of San Diego. He said, “The converging forces of improving battery technology, massive utilization, and the outset of reliable autonomous aviation will transform how people and things move around cities across the world.”
Joby's Bevirt said that change can't come too soon. “The transportation systems in many of our nation's cities are at a breaking point. Over the past 20 years, we have seen increasing numbers of people moving into and around large metropolitan areas. Existing ground infrastructure is struggling to serve this increasingly concentrated population.” As bad as things are in the urban areas, Bevirt sees the need for new generation air vehicles potentially more acute in suburban and rural areas where there is “limited or non-existent transportation infrastructure. Our vehicles and our service can help people in these places as well.” He said eVTOLs have the potential to be equally as transformative as “the railroad, the car, and jet travel.” Bevirt said that existing FAA Part 23 certification requirements with the addition of unspecified special conditions “provide a reasonable basis” for eVTOL certification.