Air Taxi, Regulation, Unmanned

Six Urban Air Mobility Aircraft ‘Well Along’ in Type Certification, FAA’s Merkle Says

By Brian Garrett-Glaser | January 14, 2020
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Jay Merkle, head of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, remarked that six urban air mobility aircraft were “well along” in the certification process. (C-SPAN)

Six aircraft intended for urban air mobility application are “well along” in pursuing type certification with the Federal Aviation Administration, said Jay Merkle, head of the FAA’s UAS integration office, at the Transportation Review Board’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.

Commenting on future transportation technology coming to the world of aviation, Merkle ensured the audience that urban air mobility (UAM) is “more than just hype … this is more than just promotional videos.” He described the sector as meeting future demand for regional aerial trips ranging from 30 miles to 300 miles.

“We have at least six aircraft well along in their type certification, which is the first step in introducing a new aircraft into operation,” Merkle said. “We are beginning to work on integrating them operationally, so the pilot requirements, the airline operating requirements, and then we’re also beginning to work on the airspace integration as well.”

The FAA would not share details regarding the six aircraft Merkle referenced, or what pathways to certification they are using. The agency has not released any new certification requirements particular to urban air mobility, like the special condition for VTOL aircraft that EASA released last summer, suggesting these aircraft are using existing pathways.

In May 2019, Merkle pushed back on suggestions that new regulation would be required to certify UAM aircraft, which often mix elements of helicopters and airplanes.

“It is absolutely not true that there need to be all new regulations” governing UAM, Merkle said during a speech at AUVSI’s Xponential conference. “We really cracked the code on how to take decades-old aviation [rules] and get to the essence of each of those requirements and say ‘What was the safety goal here?”

“We found out through Part 23, we can really bring an aircraft through the process and address all the concerns,” Merkle said at the time.

Here are some of the aircraft we believe are most likely among the six Merkle referred to as being ‘well along’ in the certification process:

  • EHang, 216: Named for its two-passenger capacity and sixteen rotors, the Chinese-made autonomous vehicle took to the skies earlier this month, without passengers but with FAA approval, to kick off the 2020 North Carolina Transportation Summit. In December, EHang began trading on the Nasdaq under $EH, and the company stated back in July 2018 its aircraft had already made over 1,000 manned flights.
  • Elroy Air, Chaparral: Elroy, which is developing a hybrid-electric, autonomous VTOL aircraft for 300-pound cargo transport up to 300 miles, recently announced a partnership with EmbraerX to “cooperate on technical, certification and business opportunities,” according to CEO David Merrill. The Chaparral first flew in August 2019.
  • Joby Aviation, S-4: Joby has been secretive about the development of its all-electric, four-passenger air taxi, not even revealing full-scale images of its prototype — though it demonstrated a 15-mile flight in 15 minutes for Bloomberg Businessweek as far back as February 2018. More recently, Joby joined Uber Elevate as the ecosystem’s only vehicle partner publicly committed to being commercial-ready in 2023.If the S-4 isn’t ‘well along’ in the cert pipeline, then that timeline may be a pipe dream.
  • Kitty Hawk / Wisk, Cora: Backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, Kitty Hawk’s second design — a two-seater intended for autonomous air taxi use — has flown extensively in New Zealand and the U.S., with almost 1,000 test flights reported in June 2019. That same month, Boeing announced a strategic partnership specifically with Kitty Hawk’s Cora division, creating a new company called Wisk says it is “working closely with the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority (CAA),” but also mentions aspirations to “expand in other markets.”
  • Sabrewing, Rhaegal RG-1: This California-based startup is building hybrid-electric autonomous VTOL drones to transport heavy cargo, with a payload capacity up to 1,000 pounds. In March 2019, Sabrewing announced a $43 million purchase agreement with the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island in Alaska. CEO Ed De Reyes told Avionics at the time his company was close to finishing production of its first aircraft and plans to start flight testing at the end of the year.Sabrewing is targeting 2023 for certification through Part 23. The company is working with Garmin, FLIR, uAvionix and others for the Rhaegal’s avionics suite.

One wild card: Detroit-based Airspace Experience Technologies (or AirspaceX), which is developing its Mobi-One air taxi or cargo delivery concept, has stayed out of the headlines, but the company targets 2019 for tooling and certification and 2021 for aircraft production. A sub-scale model displayed at Uber Elevate 2018 had already flown in limited tests, according to co-founder Jon Rimanelli.

Merkle also referred to a nameless popular ridesharing company — likely Uber — as engaging in business modeling with traditional helicopters, working to create a multi-modal experience for passengers.

“Particularly for the human transportation component, most of the business models rely on taking people from some hub area in an urban or suburban area, and transporting them across surface congestion to another hub area where you can then meet up with short-range surface transportation,” Merkle said.

Uber targets 2023 as the launch date for its Uber Air service, using new electric VTOL aircraft, in Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne, though many of its vehicle partners don’t expect their aircraft to be ready until later in the decade.

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“We think that’s going to be a very important area over the next few years and we see that as we solve the problems with small UAS and beyond visual line of sight, we’ll be turning more and more of our attention to this urban air mobility,” Merkle said. “To that end, we are continuing and starting to work on community engagement.”

When asked for further detail on current and future plans for UAM-related community engagement, an FAA representative referenced the agency being involved in numerous industry trade shows, organizing a National Drone Safety Awareness Week, and convening the industry-based Drone Advisory Committee — a definition of “community engagement” that seems limited at best.

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