NASA Series to Lead the Way in Making eVTOLs a Reality in the US
Just a few years ago, as people in the aviation field discussed how eVTOLs (called flying cars in popular culture) might be integrated into existing airspace, the term urban air mobility (UAM) came into being.
Coining it that made sense. After all, a Jetson-like cityscape is what many people think of when they imagine vertical take-off and landing aircraft.
But NASA’s come up with a better term—advanced air mobility (AAM)—and recently changed the name of its UAM Grand Challenge to the AAM National Campaign. It’s this series that aims to lead the way of eVTOLs becoming a reality in the United States. Not just in urban environments, but in suburban, rural, and regional environments as well.
When will members of the public be able to ride the skies in eVTOLs? “I don’t like to guess, but I don’t think it can happen any earlier than 10 years,” says Starr Ginn, campaign lead for the National Campaign (NC).
NASA’s Event Series
The AAM NC will run from 2022 to 2028. This series of demonstrations of eVTOLs and airspace management technologies is designed to accelerate emerging aviation markets for passenger and cargo transportation and promote public confidence in eVTOLS while it does so.
AAM National Campaign tests will move through four phases over the years: exploration and operational safety; complex operations; high-volume vertiports; and, finally, scaled urban demos.
For now, NASA and its partners are designing the series to maximize safety. They are assessing the readiness of NASA’s test infrastructure to verify relevant flight test scenarios that will assist in data collection. Several developmental testing activities are planned for 2020, including working with Joby Aviation, an eVTOL manufacturer based in Santa Cruz, CA, to gain “a real understanding of the performance of these vehicles,” says Ginn.
This risk reduction work “is designed to allow U.S. developed aircraft and airspace management service providers to essentially try out their systems with real-world operations in simulated environments,” Ginn says.
Each year, the scenarios will get more complex, with the goal of ultimately demonstrating the ability of these vehicles to fly in a full range of real-world scenarios under different weather and traffic conditions.
First Things First
The first set of AAM National Campaign tests, “NC-1,” will enable participants to demonstrate two-way network flight plan communications, beyond visual line of sight operations, simulated vehicle and operations contingencies, dynamic traffic avoidance and trajectory management, and approach and landing in the presence of real structures.
NASA wants to understand how eVTOLs handle cross winds and winds around buildings, how well they can avoid obstacles, and how closely they can land next to each other, Ginn explains.
NASA plans to gather data and formalize best practices for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), one of its NC partners. FAA will use NASA’s findings when developing regulations to help integrate eVTOLs safely into the national airspace. “The solutions for eVTOLs need to be just as safe as national airspace today,” Ginn says. Getting there will be a detailed and careful process.
Different NASA aeronautic centers are participating in the National Campaign, including the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards and the Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Airfield in California’s Silicon Valley. Armstrong has a long history of flying one-of-a-kind airplanes and developing flight critical systems. Ames conducts aeronautics research and development of airspace systems.
“The combination is allowing us to bring decades of experience together in a connected system to start assessing what the future operations of eVTOL will look like,” Ginn explains.
Working Towards the Flying Cars Future
It’s a future that excites Ginn. She started working with NASA as a teenager. Engineers from Armstrong visited 10 schools in the Antelope Valley where Ginn lived, saying just one junior would be selected for an engineering internship. “I got very lucky,” says Ginn, who wasn’t aware of Armstrong’s existence at the time.
Ginn, a good student, already knew she would be the first in her family to attend college. What she didn’t know was what she was going to be when she grew up.
All that changed her first day at Armstrong. “It was love at first sight,” she says, comparing it to stepping into a movie with cutting-edge technology like Top Gun and The Right Stuff. “Test pilots were like movie stars,” she says. “You’re doing things that have never been done before. It was extremely exciting. I knew I wanted to get into flight tests and aviation.”
At NASA, Ginn began working on aviation technologies the public wouldn’t see on commercial airlines for decades. She started work on urban air mobility concepts in 2011, years before it even had a name. Inspired by how eVTOLs captured the public imagination, Ginn played a pivotal role in persuading NASA’s senior aviation management that NASA should lead the way with these new aviation technologies.
That led to NASA developing the X-57, an all-electric experimental aircraft that launched in 2019. One of its goals was to help develop certification standards for emerging electric aircraft markets, including urban air mobility vehicles.
“That project has been excellent for industry,” Ginn says. What NASA learned in developing a safe battery for high-powered electric systems for example can now be used by companies around the world, which typically need to keep their work hidden from competitors.
“NASA is being paid by taxpayers,” Ginn says. “By having our own electric airplane, we can publicly expose requirements to make electric power systems more robust and safe for airplanes. There’s been a lot of people who have had battery fires. Our first battery test didn’t go well, and we had to redesign.”
Vision: A Slice of the Sky for Everyone
“What drew me to urban air mobility was I wished everyone had the same opportunities I had,” says Ginn, who has a private pilot’s license and lives in a skypark with its own runway.
“I can literally taxi out of my backyard and take off and go wherever I want,” she says. “I was really inspired to ask, ‘How do we make this a reality for everybody? How can everybody afford this?’”
Ginn looks forward to owning an eVTOl in the future. Which one? “I’m going to like the design that’s most energy efficient,” she says.
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