Companies in the advanced air mobility (AAM) sector aim to revolutionize the way people and cargo move around by introducing new modes of air transportation that are more efficient, sustainable, and accessible than ever before. While technological developments and regulatory approval are the focus of these companies’ efforts to get new aircraft to market, those efforts will be futile if they do not successfully engage with the communities in which their aircraft will operate, according to a member of the FAA’s Advanced Aviation Advisory Committee (AAAC).
“One of the most important things that we can do as an industry and the FAA is to engage with our communities because, without that engagement with communities, none of our operations will happen,” Kenji Sugahara, president and CEO of Drone Service Providers Alliance and a member of the AAAC subcommittee on community engagement, said during an AAAC meeting on April 26.
The AAAC, formerly known as the FAA Drone Advisory Committee, is a federal advisory committee that provides the FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation with independent recommendations regarding the integration of urban air mobility vehicles and uncrewed aircraft systems or drones, into the National Airspace System. In October, the AAAC appointed a special subcommittee to come up with a guide for best practices when it comes to community engagement. That subcommittee presented its findings during the AAAC meeting on April 26.
Sugahara explained that the subcommittee, designated Task Group 15, took a two-pronged approach to deciding these best practices. First, they created a “cookbook” with detailed recipes for all elements of community engagement, with the goal of enabling operators to create outreach plans that can be tailored to their specific operations. They then created a generic list of all the different possible stakeholders and proposed guidance on how to address each of these stakeholders individually. Those stakeholders include local government officials, community leaders, and residents.
“Community outreach is really about starting a conversation to build trust,” Sugahara said. “You set up expectations with the communities out there, because if you set up expectations, there are no surprises. And nobody likes surprises.”
When starting conversations with the relevant stakeholders about potentially introducing AAM operations in a community, it’s important to be honest and transparent about all aspects of those operations, both the “positives and the negatives,” or the benefits and the risks, Sugahara explained. “Remember, no one likes surprises. Don't surprise them. Tell them what you're doing, and how it may impact them,” he advised.
In addition to providing stakeholders with relevant information, industry players must also remain open to feedback and establish clear communication channels so that members of the community can voice their opinions and feel heard. “Listen with humility and empathy. People like to be heard and have their opinions appreciated,” Sugahara said. “You also need to respond actively. Building trust and support requires an active effort.”
Sugahara added that companies should keep track of their outreach efforts and provide regular updates that highlight areas where the community’s input made a difference. “Folks out in the community, when they see you’ve listened and are actively implementing them in your operations, that's buy-in right there,” he said.
In addition to identifying stakeholders, developing a communications plan, and addressing concerns raised by the community, the AAAC task group on community engagement suggests that companies should collaborate with local organizations and schools to promote the benefits of AAM. Operators should also provide educational materials, training programs, and “open house” events to engage and inform the public.
Last but certainly not least, the task group says that any outreach program should actively promote environmental responsibility, particularly when it comes to noise pollution and sensitive ecological areas.
The AAAC informally published the task group’s findings in a document in a public meeting e-book describing the full scope of the committee’s agenda on April 26. Sugahara said he would like to see the community engagement task group’s guide to best practices published online somewhere easily accessible, such as an FAA webpage, and that it should be treated as a living document that will be updated regularly in the future as technologies and societal perspectives change.