COMPANIES TO TEST FLY SKY TAXIS DURING NASA GRAND CHALLENGE

Companies designing sky taxis, which are electric-powered propeller aircraft aimed at ferrying passengers between cities and suburbs, face the daunting challenge of convincing the public these aircraft are safe.

“Public acceptance is of equal importance” to the technological challenges of these electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, known as eVTOLs, said Davis Hackenberg, NASA’s strategic advisor for urban air mobility.

The payoff could be huge if consumers and regulators are convinced these aircraft are safe. Sky taxi flights could generate demand for 80,000 daily passengers and “annual market value is projected to be $2.5 billion for the first few years of operation” after factoring in constraints that could initially limit flights including weather, according to consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. NASA commissioned that research and posted a summary on its website on Nov. 6.

That’s why NASA and FAA are planning a series of test flights for companies to confront challenges facing their aircraft. NASA on Oct. 15 posted a request for information online called the “Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenge” seeking input from companies in the U.S. and abroad about what problems they want the test flights to simulate “such as the loss of an engine or motor.”

Responses were due by Nov. 16 to help NASA and FAA plan a variety of challenges that could occur in 2020, followed by a second series of challenges in 2021. The request mentions Edwards Air Force Base in California is being considered as the test range for these challenges, but NASA would consider “company-owned or preferred flight locations.” 

“Noise is intended to be part of both the 2020 and 2021 grand challenges,” Hackenberg said, because many eVTOLs being developed have multiple propellers that could limit where they could take off and land if they are too loud. 

There would be no cash prizes, but FAA would draw on the results of these challenges to plan how to certify these aircraft and regulate sky taxi passenger flights.

All aircraft submitted have to be large enough to carry at least one person, even if they are steered by autonomous software. Also invited to participate are companies designing equipment for eVTOLs, including airspace management software to help them avoid collisions.

“The challenges would be simulating failures, including on-board fire or having to pick an emergency landing spot,” said Josh Ziering, founder of Kittyhawk. Ziering’s San Francisco-based startup of 20 employees submitted its airspace management software for autonomous drone flights to participate in the NASA challenge.

Consumers may not be comfortable with single-passenger, autonomous aircraft, however. Many passenger eVTOLs being developed are the size of a small helicopter, so technologists have said steering them with autonomous software, initially with a human controller keeping watch from the ground, would eliminate the need to carry a pilot. People would prefer to have a pilot on these aircraft with them, according to focus groups and surveys that Booz Allen Hamilton conducted for NASA.

That safety concern is one reason aircraft manufacturer Terrafugia would have a pilot on its TF-2 sky taxi aircraft, which is being designed at its California facility. A pilot on the hybrid-electric VTOL with eight motors would follow directions from automated software to fly up to four passengers. Terrafugia, based in Massachusetts, aims to test fly a prototype of that lift-plus push propeller aircraft in 2019.

“Mass acceptance won’t come until we show real value to the early adopters with an outstanding safety record,” said Terrafugia Co-founder Carl Dietrich. Terrafugia has not applied to participate in the NASA challenge, but the company “may participate at a later stage,” Dietrich said.

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