The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Electric Propulsion Pioneer Warns Congress U.S. Could Fall Behind Aerospace Technology Rivals

Electric aviation pioneers this week had the chance to make their case for transforming air transportation to the U.S. Congress. Addressing an April 27 hearing of the House of Representatives’ aviation subcommittee, several stakeholders had the chance to outline how they intend to respond to the proposition presented in the session’s title: “The Leading Edge: Innovation in U.S. Aerospace.”

Roei Ganzarski, CEO of electric propulsion developer MagniX, warned that the U.S in danger of falling behind other countries if it fails to seize the opportunity presented by new more sustainable aviation technologies. “Our country is falling short…in our reputation for pioneering innovation; falling short of our track record in leading an industry; and in particular, falling short for not embracing two major cultural shifts that are happening both globally and domestically: a shift to democratize demand-driven aviation in a way that makes it available and accessible to all, and a shift to propel clean energy in aviation.”

Ganzarski noted commitments to investing in electric aviation and sustainable travel being made in Europe and said the FAA lacks the resources to keep up with this evolving market. He further asked for incentives for the adoption of these technologies, such as the plans MagniX has to convert existing aircraft, like the Cessna Grand Caravan and DHC-2 Beaver, to electric propulsion to carry nine passengers on flights of up to around 500 miles.

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti appealed to lawmakers to work with stakeholders and regional leaders to establish basic standards to create urban air mobility (UAM) networks that are safe, sensitive to local communities, intermodally linked, and accessible to everyone, not just the wealthy. In December 2020, the mayor launched the city’s Urban Air Mobility Partnership task force, which has already drawn participation by eVTOL aircraft developers including Hyundai and Archer, with rival Joby Aviation also having announced an intention to start air taxi operations in LA in 2024.

House aviation subcommittee chairman Rick Larsen called the hearing a “long overdue discussion” to explore promising opportunities with emerging aerospace entrants. “Electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles could reduce traffic congestion and improve mobility options, particularly in dense urban environments,” the Democrat from Washington state said. “However, Congress and the FAA must consider infrastructure, how new entrants will be integrated into an already busy U.S. airspace, and impacts on local communities.”

Larsen said the subcommittee is looking at elements that the FAA should consider in developing vertiport standards for UAM in densely populated areas. Garcetti responded that the FAA needs to co-author these standards with the community.

“Access is critically important,” the mayor said, adding that the FAA needs to evaluate ways to create a national standard while also respecting local zoning and land-use policies, building in flexibility with communities. He also stressed the need for equity, including linking with public transit systems to ensure that a UAM network is “connecting to a system rather than existing above it.”

To ensure that goal, Garcetti is assembling the task force that will include representatives from underrepresented and lower-income communities and expressed a desire to build a playbook that could be used not only for Los Angeles but around the world. He pointed to the white paper “Principles of the Urban Sky,” which was published last year and involved 50 public/private stakeholders in concert with the World Economic Forum. Those principles surround safety, sustainability, equity of access, low noise, multimodal connectivity, local workforce development, and purpose-driven data sharing, he said.

Garcetti stressed the importance of funding for such planning efforts and the need to prioritize studies on integrating UAM into congested airspace around busy airports such as Los Angeles International.

Ganzarski agreed that the future system should be accessible, affordable, equitable, environmentally clean, and quieter. Noting that MagniX’s electric propulsion system is on track for FAA Part 33 certification in 2022, he said it “is a real possibility for smaller all-electric aircraft to start flying people and packages on short routes within the next four years.”

Given current limitations on power, the country should start with smaller aircraft flying smaller routes and progress as technology advances, he said. “With the current state of technology, our president and Congress could set a dramatic and ambitious goal of having all-electric aircraft start carrying passengers and packages for up to 250 miles in range by the end of 2024 and up to 1,000 miles by 2030.”

Today’s batteries are enough to take six-to-nine-passenger aircraft 500 miles, and today’s hydrogen power is enough to take 40 passengers up to 500 miles, Garzarski reported. By 2030, a 500-mile range with a 100-passenger aircraft should be doable.

Beyond the realm of UAM, Boom Supersonic founder and CEO Blake Scholl also spoke, estimating that his company’s XB-1 supersonic demonstrator aircraft would fly either late this year or early next year. He outlined plans to bring a supersonic airliner, the Overture, to market. These include first flying the demonstrator by early 2022, if not later this year; breaking ground on the factory to build the Overture next year; launching production of the Overture in 2023; rolling the aircraft out in 2025; and flying the airliner in 2026.

“We’re just five years away from having the first American-made supersonic airliner in our skies,” Scholl stated. He expressed the belief that the Overture would be initially operated on transoceanic routes, such as New York to London in 3.5 hours and Los Angeles to Sydney in eight hours.

Scholl stressed the importance of regulatory certainty to facilitate the return to supersonic travel. He also appealed for government backing for sustainability initiatives, such as a blenders credit for sustainable aviation fuel.

Others testifying before the subcommittee included James Grimsley, executive director of advanced technology initiatives for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma; Skydio CEO Adam Bry; and Pierre Harter, director of research and development of the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University. They covered a gamut of topics from research advancements and the need for continued R&D support to reaching a rural community, STEM development, and why the U.S. has lagged in drone technology.