Urban air mobility concept of operations. (Airbus)
The White House gave a nod to the rapid development of electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (eVTOLs) in an executive memo discussing the administration’s research and development budget priorities, sent to executive department and agency heads on August 30, 2019.
The nine-page document provides guidance for research and development priorities in areas ranging from advanced military capabilities and critical infrastructure resilience to “advanced communication networks and autonomy,” the section under which eVTOLs are mentioned, as well as autonomous vehicles and civil supersonic aircraft.
The memo states (emphasis added):
“Departments and agencies should support the development and deployment of advanced communications networks by prioritizing R&D consistent with the National Spectrum R&D Strategy. They should prioritize R&D to lower barriers to the deployment of surface, air, and marine autonomous vehicles with a focus on developing operating standards, integration approaches, traffic management systems, and defense/security operations. Departments and agencies should prioritize R&D that enables electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing and civil supersonic aircraft, including for type certification, the creation of over-land supersonic flight noise standards, and low-sonic-boom aircraft research.”
Joseph Van Valen, senior policy advisor for advanced transportation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), confirmed that support for eVTOLs are a "new addition" to the administration's fiscal year 2021 priorities for advanced transportation R&D.
"The Administration believes that unique and innovative eVTOL designs have the potential to revolutionize the future of transportation," Van Valen told Avionics. "We at OSTP look forward to working across the Federal government to develop an eVTOL regulatory framework that prioritizes safety and promotes innovation."
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However, it’s not immediately clear what impact the memo might have on government activity. A spokesperson for NASA's aeronautics research division confirmed that the issued guidance has not and is not likely to result in any funding changes or new programs regarding airspace traffic management, unmanned aircraft or eVTOLs.
“The language and topics in this memo are in line with and reinforce NASA’s current research portfolio and priorities,” the spokesperson told Avionics. “[NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate] is leveraging technologies within its Air Traffic Management – Exploration (ATM-X), - System Wide Safety (SWS), Airspace Technology Demonstration (ATD), Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM), Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace System (UAS-NAS), Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology (RVLT), and Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) Grand Challenge projects. This work is underway at all four of the agency’s aero centers.”
Advocates for eVTOL aircraft will likely be pleased to see explicit support from the highest levels of the U.S. government, but it remains to be seen whether this guidance will result in increased R&D funding or if the White House is simply playing catch-up to existing efforts.
Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society, says his organization and other industry associations have recommended the White House support eVTOL-related funding and he is encouraged by the administration's recognition of the capabilities promised by the technology, but wants to see the administration support more "real investments" in tech development.
“NASA and the Department of Transportation have committed some resources towards eVTOL/urban air mobility over the past several years, but more is needed to speed this revolutionary capability to the public benefit,” Hirschberg said.
The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) is enthusiastic about the administration’s prioritization of supersonic air travel and eVTOL aircraft, with David Silver, AIA’s vice president for civil aviation, pointing to programs like Nasa’s X-59 supersonic aircraft program, UAM Grand Challenge and FAA’s UAS IPP as “examples of great work already being done to generate important data and address some of the challenges industry will face in bringing these technologies to market.”
“As we move forward, government must ensure that that we continue to prioritize funding for these sort of technologies – especially as others such as Europe and China are investing significant sums to gain an advantage in these areas,” Silver said.