Short hoperations: What will day-to-day eVTOL ops look like?
Certifying an eVTOL is the tip of the iceberg. It is the years of operations and maintenance proceeding that to which the industry will be held account.
Public confidence in these new aircraft is widely regarded as one of the key points to address in terms of scaling. So, maintaining a safety record which reflects that seen in other aviation sectors is a necessity. As Bryan Willows, program manager, Advanced Air Mobility at Bristow, says: “eVTOL aircraft are revolutionary, but the safe operation of them will be evolutionary.”
US-based helicopter operator Bristow has a global footprint and operations dating back 70 years. It has also agreed deals with Beta Technologies and Elroy Air for 55 and 100 VTOLs respectively. The firm is leading the formation an AAM Operator’s Council, focused on sharing safety best practices and lessons learned between operators to improve outcomes for all.
“The hope is that sharing safety information between council members will improve safety, build the flying public’s confidence in the aircraft and services, and lead to a faster maturation of the industry,” Willows tells Revolution.Aero. “Bristow has been operating vertical takeoff and landing aircraft for more than 70 years, in just about every different mission that helicopters can execute. The legacy of those years of experience is a deep understanding of how to safely operate a fleet of aircraft across multiple different use cases.”
Despite being a leader in this space, the firm believes a pragmatic approach to introducing eVTOLs into operations is a challenge that cannot be overemphasised. The FAA, EASA and other civil aviation authorities have detailed protocols for what and how aircraft must be tested to ensure they are safe for the public, explains Willows. “Those approved flight test programmes have dramatically improved flight safety, but by their prescriptive nature they can only test a finite number of variables, which pale in comparison to the number of variables experienced during day-to-day operations,” he says.
Having launched numerous helicopter models in the past, Bristow is not unfamiliar with introducing new aircraft to new environments. A prudent approach is best, says Willows. Bristow believes early adoption of eVTOLs will begin with mid-range cargo flights over largely rural areas and slowly expand from there. This pragmatic approach is designed to mature the aircraft and prove the safety case.
“We will begin operations in day VFR [Visual Flight Rules] conditions, flying cargo missions over largely rural environments. We believe regional air mobility [RAM] is the right way to introduce eVTOLs into our operation. Urban air mobility [UAM] (reducing commute times, decreasing carbon emissions, etc.) is the long-term vision, but we owe it to the world to ensure that we can execute basic operations safely before moving into more complex, higher density, urban operations,” explains Willows.
Just because an eVTOL is outside of urban environment does not mean it can operate anywhere. This is where on-the-ground experience honed by local operators comes in. If these aircraft were to operate in Peru and Ecuador for example, missions are likely to involve flying over jungle in extreme humidity with a high amount of rain. Operators there, such as Ecocopter, often choose to fly older helicopters on these missions, because there is less that can go wrong. Marcelo Rajchman, CEO, Ecocopter, tells Revolution.Aero: “We use analogue helicopters more than the new ones with all the technology because the electrics are prone to failure in those conditions. I know are not talking about New York or LA, but if you want to fly these in South America or India the environment has to be considered.”
The consensus is that cargo will be the first mission type widely operated by this new class of aircraft. The point Rajchman makes is that it is likely an eVTOL is only required due to a lack of infrastructure. That could also make for some pretty harsh environments, especially if the aircraft is operating EMS or firefighting. “If you had the infrastructure in place, you would maybe find another way, less expensive to make it happen. So making sure we are prepared for those kind of environments is one of the main concerns that I have,” says Rajchman.
Proving the safety case and maintaining a clear record is paramount. Usually when introducing a new product in aviation, let’s say a new airliner, everything else is fixed. There are already airlines that will use it and airports for it to land at. In AAM’s case almost everything is changing and innovating at the same time, according to Sergio Cecutta, CEO and founder, SMG Consulting. “We have an aircraft category that is completely new and ultimately they will land in areas that have done very few commercial operations. And, last not but least, they will be operated by airlines who need to understand what it means to perform operations inside an urban area with the frequency we are talking about,” Cecutta tells Revolution.Aero.
If you take a step back and look at every nation that has developed a robust aviation safety regulatory regime, passengers step on airliners with every confidence they are going to make it from point A to B. The downside to that, according to David Norton, partner, head of Aviation Practice, Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton, is that fliers carry that concept down the line to much smaller aircraft. “Although air transportation in small aircraft is still very safe it is not necessarily as safe as flying on a 737,” he says.
“To really make eVTOL operations a reality issues including airspace deconfliction need to be addressed. How are you going to make sure these aircraft don’t hit each other? If you have crowded vertiports for example. Even today, there is the big sky theory, a lot of pilots think it is a big sky I am never going to hit somebody, then sure enough two small aircraft collide – it happens,” says Norton.
A collision and any resultant fatalities could be detrimental to a burgeoning AAM sector, especially from a public acceptance perspective. Cecutta believes the term “public acceptance” is damaging in its own right. “Around 75% of people don’t even know what an air taxi/eVTOL is. So, before we even get to talking about accidents, I think one of the first things we should do to shift the conversation is to stop referring to ‘public acceptance’ and begin using ‘public adoption’. I know it seems like we are splitting hair, but there are a lot of things in life you accept and don’t like. It involves a negative element from the outset,” says Cecutta.
Patrick Coulter, director, Business Development Commercial Training, FlightSafety International agrees. He tells Revolution.Aero: “It is extremely important that these new aircraft types meet the rigorous regulatory requirements for safety. In order for this new advanced air mobility market to flourish, these vehicles will require public confidence and the only way that happens is if there is an extremely strong safety record.”
FlightSafety currently has partnerships in place with both crewed and uncrewed vehicles, including Lilium. “We continue to look for partnerships that will provide benefits to both parties,” Coulter explains. “Additionally, we continue to support the regulators, leading standards organisations and the AAM ecosystem with subject matter experts, technologies and agile learning solutions that will aid in the successful development and sustainment of the market.”
Intrinsic to the safety case is making sure there are pilots trained to safely operate these aircraft. Even though a significant portion of eVTOL OEMs have plans for autonomy, such as Wisk, pilots are already required for flight testing and will be in further demand as commercial entry nears. Traditionally, training providers work with OEMs to start creating training programmes for new aircraft at least three years in front of their entry into service to be certain that the workforce is ready to support operations on day one. Ensuring that training programmes are in place in time to support an OEM’s forecasted entry-into-service date has training providers like CAE laser-focused on their development activities. CAE has partnerships with Vertical Aerospace, Joby Aviation, Volocopter, and BETA Technologies. It also developed the training solutions for the AW609.
Chris Courtney, director of AAM at CAE, tells Revolution.Aero: “We have a dedicated training design expert on our AAM team who is looking at all the tasks required to train pilots to fly these novel aircraft. Training eVTOL pilots combines both fixed wing and rotorcraft skills, as well as competencies unique to these new aircraft”. These aircraft are highly automated and referred to as Simplified Vehicle Operations (SVOs), but that doesn’t mean they will require less training. In fact, regulators have already determined that there will be Type Ratings issued to the pilots of these aircraft, a requirement usually reserved for heavier weight-classes. There are a handful of pilots today who are qualified to fly powered-lift aircraft based on military training and experience. “There is a very small portion of pilots across the globe who have flown V22 [Osprey tilt rotor], F35 or Harrier. Regulators are determining how to apply their powered lift experience and how to transition commercially rated airplane and helicopter pilots to safely operate eVTOLs,” says Courtney.
Flying an eVTOL compared with flying a piston-engined aircraft can be likened to the differences in driving a car fresh out the showroom and the ‘banger’ you had as a teenager. Driving in an older car requires more concentration and manual actions. Driving in a modern car is easy – lane assist, cruise control, satnav – and, although you shouldn’t have any less focus, requires you to only keep eyes on the road. According to Stella-Marissa Hughes, AAM Strategy, Business Development and Partnerships leader, CAE, piloting an eVTOL is like driving a Tesla through downtown Delhi at rush hour. “The chaos is more but the car is simpler,” she says.
“OEMs haven’t locked in their designs yet, so the aircraft are evolving. We have to develop the training programme in parallel, and work hand-in-hand with OEMs to make sure the equipment and curriculum are developed on time and on budget,” says Hughes. “We do that today with a lot of OEMs as they bring new aircraft programmes to market. But bringing a new version of an existing aircraft to market is not the same as launching a completely new aircraft in an uncertain regulatory environment.”
In addition to maintaining a close relationship with the OEMs, close coordination with the regulators is equally important for training providers, says Hughes. “We are going to be in an environment where training programmes receive approval and training devices are qualified under special conditions and exemptions. This means we have to start building simulators and producing courseware today without being fully certain of the regulations and seek approval down the road. Holding off on these activities while regulations are being developed would bottleneck the entry into service of an aircraft.”
The FAA told Revolution.Aero its requirements for eVTOL operators to inspect and maintain will not differ from today’s aircraft. “We expect the initial AAM aircraft will use existing infrastructure such as helipads, routes and air traffic control services where possible.” As operations increase, the FAA will have flight corridors and rules for communicating with air traffic control in place, it says.
“We will require operators to inspect and maintain their aircraft according to the manufacturer’s FAA-approved maintenance manual, and follow any applicable airworthiness directives, just as we do with traditional aircraft,” said the spokesperson.
eVTOL OEMs predominantly work with either the FAA or EASA, but in somewhere like South America there is no overarching aviation regulator. Ecocopter’s Rajchman explains: “In Chile, Peru and Ecuador each country has their own individual institution and they don’t talk to each other. There is a lack of communication between the smaller authorities that makes it complex. So when you want to go other countries outside of Europe and North America I believe you need the help of the local operators who have a relationship with local regulators.”
Operating means maintaining. Although electric motors and batteries are significantly less maintenance-heavy than piston-engined aircraft, they will still require maintenance programmes. This raises the question: Who will perform this maintenance and how? Drawing reference from Tesla, there are only a handful of people outside of the EV giant that can perform maintenance on its vehicles. It is kept in-house, intentionally. Cecutta believes initially eVTOL OEMs will be heavily involved in the maintenance, repair and overhaul of their aircraft, but there is a point to which that is feasible. “Once the fleets scale, especially if they scale to the number we expect them to, I think that you will see more Part 145 stations performing repairs on these aircraft and I think you are beginning to see OEMs do deals with classic MRO providers,” explains Cecutta. Examples include United and Archer’s eVTOL maintenance committee and the Air France/KLM and Ascendance deal.
So, are future aircraft OEMs putting enough attention on daily operations? Willows says OEMs are focused on certifying and rightly so. “The primary value they bring is developing and manufacturing aircraft,” he adds. Bristow’s primary mission is developing and executing day-to-day operations. “That said, OEMs also need to give some thought to day-to-day operations, especially in areas like aircraft maintainability and accessibility, but that’s why Bristow’s OEM partnerships are so important. The collaboration Bristow has with its partners will lead to a more marketable aircraft from the OEMs, and lead to more efficient operations for Bristow. Designing and manufacturing aircraft, and safely executing day-to-day operations both require detailed focus from a different set of experienced experts.”
There is a need to balance vision for the future of eVTOLs with existing experience. Aircraft operators have historically been pretty conservative when it comes to innovation. But with eVTOLs, innovation and experimentation are necessary parts of bringing AAM to reality. “Both lenses are necessary to chart the right course, but it is imperative that neither one weighs too heavily in decision making,” concludes Willows.
While it is true there are a lot of moving parts in this industry, it is equally true the sector is using tried and tested means to assure safety. SMG’s Cecutta explains: “We are using certification routes that are, or will be, clearly defined. Then when it comes to operations, there are specific operational rules in an AOC certificate including, for example, an SMS management system. So, I think the industry will have all of the items needed for safe operation. From a how does it work in practice? point of view, the industry needs to begin testing that out.”
Certifying is just the tip of the iceberg that is the nascent AAM industry. The day-to-day operations, proven safety case and pilot training make up the rest. We all know the impact icebergs have had on modes of transportation in the past. Whilst it is true shipbuilding techniques, and thus safety, greatly improved post-Titanic, no one in AAM ever wants to find themselves in that position.