The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General (IG) plans to begin an audit this month of FAA certification processes for urban air mobility vehicles at the request of the House of Representatives' Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The audit, to be conducted at the direction of Congress, will seek to determine the FAA’s progress in establishing the basis for certification of new aircraft, such as eVTOL designs, including ensuring the safety of novel features and providing guidance to applicants.
In a statement, the IG office noted the challenges associated with the use of existing Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) to certify these aircraft. While the FAA has already begun reviewing applications for certification of eVTOL vehicles, regulators intended the existing standards to apply to traditional small aircraft with a pilot on board. Those regulations do not necessarily apply to UAM aircraft that might fly autonomously. Meanwhile, UAM aircraft contain technology and systems that are novel compared with what current small aircraft contain and require more scrutiny during the certification process, said the IG office.
“In recent years, interest in Urban Air Mobility (UAM)—the use of highly automated or autonomous aircraft to transport passengers within urban areas—has grown significantly,” said the IG’s office in a written statement. “This new technology, including electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, promises many benefits, such as reduced commuting times and urban congestion, and may introduce entirely new methods of transportation within and between cities in the coming decade. However, it also creates new and complex safety challenges for the FAA’s aircraft certification process.”
Responding to the announced audit, the Vertical Flight Society (VFS) questioned whether the House committee might have misunderstood the approach the FAA is taking in working with developers of aircraft for the UAM sector. "The primary reason behind this review is eVTOL aircraft may be entirely autonomous," said the organization's executive director, Mike Hirschberg. "However, almost none of the companies are planning on full autonomy from the first product. Most companies are only planning to work on certification of autonomous operations after hundreds of thousands of safe flights."
VFS also disagreed with the IG office's statement that the FAA plans to certify the new aircraft with outdated airworthiness standards. It said the Part 23 rules were just updated specifically to accommodate electric aircraft and other innovations.
Hirschberg pointed out that although the FAA established a new 21.17 (b) 'special class' certification pathway using "the most appropriate regulations" from the current Part 23, Part 27 and Part 29 standards, the agency has struggled to certificate the AW609 tiltorotor under this framework.
"Most eVTOL aircraft developers are pursuing certification under Part 23, which was just updated in August 2017 precisely to support certification of 'novel technology' by supporting performance-based airworthiness standards developed under broad consensus among industry, government, standards-developing organizations, and other associations and stakeholders," Hirschberg told FutureFlight. "Prior airworthiness pathways are more limited in their ability to accommodate new technologies that were not foreseen when those regulations were written."
"The FAA is developing an approach that will open up the ability to achieve regulatory compliance in terms of safety, but providing multiple paths to reach the airworthiness certification objectives that accommodate a wide range of approaches," Hirschberg commented.
The U.S. Congress has shown a closer interest in how the FAA handles type certification for new aircraft in the wake of two fatal accidents involving Boeing's latest 737 Max airliner. Several investigations have highlighted instances where agency officials appear not to have adequately scrutinized the program and possible conflicts of interest on the part of Boeing's role in the process.