The emerging $30 billion urban air mobility market could succumb to crib death unless the industry embraces levels of safety that are at least equivalent to those governing helicopters weighing more than 7,000 pounds under FAR Part 29. That was the message from Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Sikorsky Innovations, this week at the AUVSI conference.
“I am extremely nervous,” he said. “Until you are ready to have your vehicle fly with your family onboard every day, you are making a toy. How many YouTube videos of a family coming off the 60th floor and tumbling to the sidewalk would it take to have this industry go away?”
Van Buiten was referring to the aftermath of scheduled passenger-carrying Sikorsky S-61L that made a hard landing on the helipad atop New York’s Pan Am building in 1977. It rolled over and flying debris killed four passengers awaiting boarding and a pedestrian on the ground. “Helicopter operations in most cities around the world stopped for decades,” Van Buiten noted, with those that remained exiled to river barges and piers.
Van Buiten said the magnitude of the urban air mobility safety challenge is daunting. “It’s 50,000 aircraft flying 3,000 hours each annually—a total of 150 million flight hours per year. If the world’s safest helicopter today is lost at a rate of one per one million flight hours and we are talking 150 million flight hours per year, can our industry tolerate 150 YouTube videos of moms not making it home? Never. Not going to happen. So if you aren’t thinking about 100 times of what the best safety standard is in the helicopter industry right now, you are going to ruin it for us all. The bar is very high and it needs to be. The technology exists and the standards need to be vigorously adhered to.
“I’ve heard people in this community talk about maturing their products in countries that have lower safety standards. That’s outrageous and completely unacceptable. Part 29 is not going to be what’s going to be required to fly with four passengers." The bar will be higher and the industry will need to reach it to ensure "business success of a $30 billion business and the vision we’re talking about," he added.
Van Buiten said Sikorsky is maturing autonomous flight technology in its legacy platforms and that has provided a sobering experience of just how difficult the urban mobility challenge is. “We’ve converted an S-76 to fly with a supercomputer onboard that does the required autonomy calculations in real time to do terrain avoidance and full point-to-point flight in national airspace. We have 120 hours in the aircraft executing very complex autonomy missions.”
This helicopter currently flies with a safety pilot. “Our Matrix technology uses flight controls and advanced diagnostics and prognostics to achieve the level of safety we are talking about. We’re maturing the autonomy technology that will make this possible to make it an FAA-certifiable system. We’re absolutely doing it the hard way, with Level A software and incredible levels of redundancy. It gets incredibly difficult to get to the levels of excellence required for operations at this level.”
Nevertheless, Van Buiten remains optimistic that the industry can meet the looming safety challenge. “Urban mobility is going to happen. We are seeing the venture capital come in. A lot of the right people are working on it and it is the intersection of electric propulsion and autonomy that are going to make the economics possible. It’s an economics issue and a safety issue. We can do it and we can get to the required level of safety. But we need to collaborate and be honest about it.”