EVTOL certification: where are they now and the challenges ahead

Joby Aviation has received the first military airworthiness for a vertical take-off and landing electric vehicle (eVTOL) from the AFWERX Agility Prime program. (Joby Aviation)

There are questions about the degree of realism of forecasts for the commercial launch of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft in the next three to four years. While there are many factors that will determine whether these timelines turn out to be correct, certification from regulatory bodies will be the deciding factor.

At a panel discussion at the Vertical Flight Society’s Forum 77 on May 13, experts from regulators and eVTOL manufacturers presented an update on the path eVTOL aircraft could take to achieve the certification and the challenges ahead.

One of the reasons some people may be skeptical about how quickly eVTOL manufacturers attempt to certify their aircraft is that the process is moving much faster than previously in the industry.

“It took almost 100 years for the airline industry to achieve the level of safety, utility and efficiency it has today and we are trying to do it in about a tenth of that time,” said Lowell Foster, director of global innovation and engineering at GAMA, said.

Foster said aspects of an aircraft’s development need to be done in parallel with each other instead of one at a time.

“We’re going to have to do everything in parallel. It’s a really big challenge, isn’t it, ”said Foster. “Historically you would certify the aircraft and go through pilot training, then you would find out how to operate it, and the infrastructure would follow. We don’t have that luxury today. We really need to be able to start using these vehicles, as soon as they are PC. [part certified] which means we have to work on training and operations at the same time as certification. Also, you know, if we prepare these vehicles to fly and we don’t have the infrastructure, aerospace operations could be severely limited. So it’s really important that we look at all of these different aspects from a parallel approach. “

Several eVTOL aircraft manufacturers are currently working in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to find a path to certification. While eVTOL aircraft are unique, they also feature aspects that allow them to take advantage of previous certifications.

“All VTOL projects use performance-based requirements in their certificate. [certification] bases, which is a great advantage because it allows authorities to leverage the means of compliance for all kinds of new technologies and innovations, ”said Foster. “The other good thing is that almost two-thirds of the existing means of compliance are already applicable. We’re only looking for new areas for about a third of that. “

Archer Aviation’s eVTOL aircraft will use a mix of current FAA Part 23, 27, 33, 35 and 36 requirements, said Eric Wright, certification manager at Archer. Areas where the aircraft differs from the available certification requirements include unique aircraft configurations, distributed electric propulsion, energy storage and distribution systems, high voltage architecture, flight control systems electrical control, advanced or automated systems, impact resistance requirements and noise standards.

“How do we deal with these problems? Essentially, these additional certification considerations are addressed in position papers, for the most part with all of these new and new topics being primarily addressed through the presentation of the standards design application and then regulatory collaboration, ”said Wright. “There are white papers to improve regulator understanding with detailed system descriptions, so regulators fully understand what these systems are doing and what other systems they are talking to.”

Wright said there had been good progress with the special conditions and gave the example of FAA Part 41 provisions for electric propulsion.

Archer Aviation’s eVTOL aircraft will use a mix of current FAA Part 23, 27, 33, 35 and 36 requirements. (Archer Aviation)

EASA is working on means of VTOL compliance (SC VTOL) with special conditions to certify eVTOL aircraft. This process started in 2019 and is currently in phase three, said David Solar, SC-VTOL manager at EASA. During the first two phases, the MOC addressed fly-by-wire systems, structural validation loads and design requirements. In phase three, which will be presented to the public later this year, Eurocae standards will be published as well as operational aspects, including the development of the first EASA qualified virtual reality simulators.

One route that eVTOL makers, like Joby Aviation, choose to take is to create an aircraft that requires minimal exemption from currently available certifications.

“We have chosen a path that is part of the type certification path with a minimal need for exemption, through the training and qualification path for flight pilots through the operational path and in the integration path airspace, ”Greg Bowles, Head of Government Affairs at Joby Aviation, mentioned.

Bowles said that thought process led them to decide to include a pilot on board instead of building a fully self-contained aircraft like some other companies. Archer’s eVTOL aircraft will also be flown.

“Having a pilot on board allows us to take advantage of the existing air traffic control system, the voice communication channel, it allows us to use traditional pilot skills to detect and avoid,” Bowles said. “There are a lot of technologies that are not yet necessary to mature with a pilot on board.”

Joby also classified his eVTOL with the FAA as an aircraft that can take off and land vertically, Bowles said.

“So if you think of something like an F-35, it’s an airplane,” Bowles said. “We would look at that without saying it’s a rotorcraft, we would look at it and say, oh, it’s an airplane, and it can operate vertically as well.”

While these achievements mean that the certification process for eVTOL aircraft is moving forward, experts said there were still obstacles before they could reach the finish line.

Short-term challenges could include using fossil fuel certification approaches for electrically powered aircraft, Foster said.

“We still see the use of the fossil fuel mindset when we approach electric propulsion,” Foster said. “… The problem here is that we risk missing out on a specific electrical safety issue because we are so focused on legacy.”

Another problem could be the tendency of regulatory agencies to be too conservative when considering new technologies, Foster said.

“The general tendency is for authorities to approach new technologies from an absolute or relative safety perspective,” Foster said. “… The problem with the tendency to lock down absolute safety is that it can discourage the installation of new safety devices on board aircraft due to the additional costs and delays that might exist, as well as the uncertainty. “

The creation of a certification for the use of automation could also prove to be an obstacle.

“The extensive use of automation not only for flight controls, but also for distributed electric propulsion and also when we replace traditional pilot tasks with automation, the level of complexity is very high and we might have need a new approach here instead of the traditional part 25/29 legacy approach, ”said Foster. “As we reach higher levels of automation, we really have the potential to make airplanes much safer and perhaps more tolerant of human error. We probably need to consider a new systems approach or maybe a new architecture to really take advantage of this, so we don’t want to get too locked into the legacy approaches that were developed in the ’70s.

Bowles said all new technological developments could be a challenge as businesses grow.

“We’re very excited right now in aviation because we’re in such a technological shift,” Bowles said. “And as this evolution happens, there will be endless opportunities, and frankly, that’s why there is so much excitement in the world for this space. But the good news is that we don’t want to lose sight of the path that lies ahead on which we can run in the short term and how it is moving in all these different directions.

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