Why would a manufacturer add a safety system, such as a parachute, to its aircraft? If you said, “to make it safer,” or “to save lives,” you are half-right. If you said, “so regulators will certify it,” you’ve got the other half. Mark Moore, Uber’s engineering director for aviation, thinks regulators might need to adjust how they give credit if the urban air mobility (UAM) industry is going to be as safe as it can be. The ride-share giant is working to launch an Uber Air program using a selection of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
In aviation, safety is described in terms of the probability of an accident occurring due to vehicle malfunction. In general aviation, the standard used by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is 10-6—meaning that an aircraft isn’t projected to cause an accident more often than once every million flights. Depending on the aircraft’s use—transportation of cargo, passenger-carrying, etc.—and complexity, the standard typically shifts from 10-6 to 10-9. Standards for UAM have not yet been set, but Moore said it looks like regulators will settle at 10-7, changing to 10-8 with the implementation of more complex fly-by-wire systems.
As things stand, the FAA is not set to provide any safety credit for features like ballistic parachute systems designed to provide a soft landing in the event of a major system failure. Moore and others question this attitude on the grounds that it discourages the industry from investing in equipment that makes people safer. That said, some experts are not completely convinced that parachutes enhance safety in all situations, pointing to circumstances such as where a light aircraft operating in high winds and an urban environment might find itself drifting into greater danger.
“Right now, if you look at things, there is no incentive whatsoever to put a ballistic [parachute] recovery system on an aircraft,” Moore said. “Instead, it’s the opposite, because they weigh one to two percent of total vehicle mass, and that’s a huge penalty to absorb.”
Uber has put together a proposal urging the FAA to provide a safety credit through a points system for parachutes, crash bags, safety seats, and other crash-protection systems. The company argues that this approach would more accurately reflect what they do for the vehicle and its passengers.
“Eighty percent of accidents happen because of the operator, not because of the vehicle failing,” Moore told FutureFlight. “Instead of just overdesigning the vehicle, let’s find ways that when something goes wrong, the occupants are still protected with another level of safety. Design stuff has diminishing returns and applies to 20 percent of accidents, while [other solutions] impact 80 percent of accidents, so they do more to make people safe. Don’t just throw crazy standards at the vehicle, look where accidents are happening.”
Over the past year, Uber has presented the findings from its study—that it sees parachutes and other crash safety devices as important to the burgeoning UAM industry—to the FAA and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), as well as to industry groups such as the General Aviation Manufacturers Association and Vertical Flight Society. The company claims there is support on the side of industry for a re-evaluation of how those devices are evaluated, but it isn’t yet clear whether regulators would be willing to change.
The FAA declined an interview for this article but sent the following statement on the subject:
“The safe integration of new technologies and aircraft designs is of the utmost importance to the FAA. The FAA recognizes each project and proposed use of a parachute recovery system is unique. The FAA will always remain open-minded on potential certification credit; however, to date, the FAA has not offered relief from our certification requirements with the installation of such a system. The original parachute recovery system approved on the Cirrus SR-20 airplane was the basis for an ‘equivalent level of safety’ finding to the stall and spin requirements of the Part 23 airworthiness standards. More typically, we treat parachute recovery systems as non-required safety-enhancing equipment. The FAA encourages and facilitates the installation of this type of safety-enhancing system, but we do not mandate it.”
That open-mindedness is consistent with what Zach Lovering, Airbus’s vice president UAM, has seen. “So far, in our experience, the regulators have been quite open to hearing different ideas,” he said. “I think if we went to them and said, ‘In this particular mission, in these circumstances, we’d like some credit’…they’d be more than willing to hear that out.”
Airbus hasn’t decided on which platforms it plans to use ballistic parachutes, though it has been equipping its Vahana demonstrator with one for test flights. Lovering said that certification credit isn’t Airbus’s primary motivation for considering the use of ballistic parachutes.
“I think that the benefit as a company in doing this is that you’re building a safer product,” he said. “Fundamentally, that’s the underlying thing. Yes, you’re not going to spend a billion dollars per airplane to make sure we have that safety target; there is a trade here. This one happens to be not a ton of weight, and not super expensive, so we look at the safety.”
Transcend Air is relying on the parachute to reach certification for its Vy 400 city-to-city fixed-wing VTOL aircraft. COO Peter Schmidt said showing the FAA that parachutes keep the aircraft safe is a mix between relying on their proven use on general aviation aircraft and gathering data to demonstrate that they are applicable for the Vy 400 as well.
“We have a 20-year track record of the successful use of the parachute in operation [on Cirrus planes]…and we will submit that as part of our certification basis. And [regulators] will look at that and nod politely and then say, ‘Now prove that your aircraft will perform the same way,’” Schmidt said.
While Transcend is looking at the ballistic parachute as providing a level of redundancy that will let it simplify emergency operations and onboard systems—notably utilizing only one engine on the Vy 400—other makers consider the solution something to have in addition to critical systems rather than instead of them. That’s what Uber’s Moore advises, but it can be difficult to justify adding to the cost and weight of an aircraft with no tangible incentive.
Getting regulators to change the way they evaluate safety may sound like a lofty goal, but the reason the UAM market is realistic in the first place is because regulators have been rewriting regulations, such as FAA’s Part 23 rules. If Uber and others can convince agencies to certify with the minimization of loss of life in mind rather than vehicle malfunction, for example, technologies such as ballistic parachutes could become valuable factors in achieving type certification.
For his part, Boris Popov—notably, the founder of parachute-maker BRS and patent-holder for the ballistic recovery system—sees that happening. “There’s no community and no government agency that’s going to let 500 of these things fly around over a downtown system without a parachute system,” Popov said. “The first time [one] goes in and kills a kid in a soccer game, they’ll come down hard on us. If you don’t do this cautiously and do all you can to prevent that, the media will jump all over you and government agencies will jump all over you.”