Whether it be a wildfire, hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, or even a volcano, technology is playing an increasingly essential role in disaster relief efforts. To illustrate, just look at how wildfires are fought.
Traditionally, firefighters have used an array of ground-based systems supported in the air by manned rotorcraft and airplanes. However, many of these systems lack the capacity to cover the huge swaths of land affected by these fires. Furthermore, due to the nature of wildfires, aircraft often find themselves operating over long distances, at night, in severe weather, and in remote areas that lack proper infrastructure—all of which make these missions extremely dangerous.
Because of these limitations and inherent dangers, many wildfire crews are now turning to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones. Small units can be with the fire crew and mission-ready when needed, while some special drones have the advantage of being able to operate over long distances, in adverse conditions, at night, at high altitude, and through a wide spectrum of temperatures—all without any risk to a crew.
Because eVTOL aircraft offer some of these same advantages at a much larger scale, along with the ability to transport people, many observers see them transforming disaster relief efforts.
These aircraft have "the potential to bring numerous advantages to the disaster relief arena,” said Johnny Doo, president of International Vehicle Research, a company dedicated to applying technology and innovation to the development of aerial vehicles for global rescue and disaster relief missions. “They’re more affordable than manned aircraft, they enable distributed on-demand operations, and some smaller units can get in and out of the tight spaces often associated with natural disasters.”
Doo, who also leads the NASA Transformative Vertical Flight Working Group on Public Services, says that because eVTOLs are less complex in design, have lower maintenance requirements, and are easier to operate than traditional rotorcraft, more agencies will be able to add them to their arsenals. “Most of these vehicles are fly-by-wire with autonomous or semi-autonomous capabilities and can be operated remotely or, when needed, with a pilot leveraging simplified vehicle operations,” he told FutureFlight.
Logistical Hurdles to be Cleared
Before eVTOLs can begin landing at disaster sites, numerous operational and logistical hurdles will need to be addressed. Some are disaster-specific, such as being able to land on water for evacuation during floods. Others are more universal, such as the issue of charging.
“Some eVTOLs have limited range, meaning we need to ensure that, once on-site, they can quickly recharge for the next run,” explained Doo. “This is why having reliable charging capabilities is absolutely essential.”
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. According to Doo, even with a distributed network of charging sites near a disaster area, a wide-area power outage, such as the one that occurred during Hurricane Sally in the U.S., could bring operations to a standstill. As a result, mobile charging units and refueling units for hybrid eVTOLs will likely be needed. Another option is to equip some eVTOLs within the emergency response fleet with portable generators and fuel for initial operations support, followed by ground-based mobile charging trucks placed at the staging areas.
“Ideally, eVTOLs would be designed so they could charge at truckstops and leverage the megawatt truck charging system via converters and adapters, which would allow for quick relay-deployment or even on-site charging,” said Doo.
Another key challenge is airspace management. Here, NASA is working on a program called Scalable Traffic Management for Emergency Response Operations (STEReO). The program aims to leverage unmanned traffic management and other systems for emergency responses.
“This system is currently focused on UAS applications, but the same technology can be applied to eVTOL fleets,” noted Doo. “I also think we will be able to leverage current air space management practices during disasters, allowing eVTOLs to operate alongside traditional aerial assets.”
A Phased Approach
As technology continues to advance, Doo expects that the use of eVTOLs in disaster response missions will come in phases. For instance, early applications will likely be certified based on the same criteria used for large UAS and could include providing logistical support in wildfires and other natural disasters.
“As we establish more operational data and demonstrate safety and reliability, the next phase will include transporting injured people and emergency personnel from a disaster site,” Doo said. “In some cases, these operations could be approved under public aircraft operations guidance.”
The ultimate goal is to be able to deploy eVTOLs for civilian evacuation, operations that would likely require full FAA FAR 23 or EASA certification. It would also require a large network of emergency vehicles. Here, Doo envisions having two sets of emergency response assets. This would include equipping such operating units as the National Guard or FEMA with a mission-specific eVTOL fleet. It would also involve equipping civilian and private air taxis with a unified command-control system that could be activated on demand whenever disaster strikes.
“This combined mobility capacity would make a huge difference in our ability to respond to natural disasters quickly, efficiently, and safely,” concluded Doo.