FAA changes to eVTOL certification scare air taxi developers

News that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has changed its mind about how it will certify electric take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for air taxi use has rattled the developers of these vehicles – including many prototypes are already well advanced in the approval process. In response to any jitters that may have been created, the regulator assures companies that the changes it has made will not send any project off the certification track.

The main point of change is the perspective from which the FAA will analyze eVTOL craft for certification, not necessarily different criteria that it has already established with manufacturers of air taxis and other urban air mobility vehicles. Under the leadership of recently appointed FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolan, the regulator decided not to enforce Part 23 regulations for small fixed-wing aircraft as previously planned. Instead, it will certify eVTOLs as “mechanically lifted” means of transportation, as stipulated in Federal Aviation Regulations 21.17(b).

This special class sits somewhere between light passenger planes and helicopters – which, to be fair, is roughly how air taxis and next-gen UAM craft will operate.

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So what will this change for manufacturers trying to get their prototypes certified? It’s not entirely clear yet, though it’s beginning to appear that the changes involved will be less disruptive to the process than some UAM officials initially feared.

News of the modification was first detailed by an aviation publication The Airstream earlier this month. A subtitle of the article warned that “Electric air(e)taxi startups in the United States are eyeing massive regulatory change from the FAA”, with the main warning that “injected new uncertainty into the programs of certification from leading US eVTOL developers.

The piece’s co-writer, Elan Head, was less alarmist series of tweets on the changes, and while stating “(c) this is a massive change with many unknowns”, but also noted, “FAA says this will not impact certification timelines , but… we’ll see.”

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Not illogically, some eVTOL members first thought. Mike Hirschberg, director of The Vertical Flight Society, reacted to the development with a tweet lamenting that the FAA “has caused a lot of confusion with their conflicting statements about #eVTOL certification over the past few days,” and added, “it’s not clear the agency has really given this much thought. Aviation media have published articles with similar concerns from eVTOL airlines and industry observers.

Quite quickly, however, the feathers notably got ruffled. Those responsible for Joby and Archer, for example, made statements not too far off from “meh.” They said they viewed the changes as minor and would likely only require tweaks to the way their businesses — and, presumably, their competitors — continue to work toward certification.

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The FAA has stepped up to reinforce this sentiment, issuing statements indicating that the approval criteria for “power-lift” vehicles would be largely the same as in the separate light aircraft category.

“The FAA’s top priority is to ensure that the flying public is safe,” read a widely circulated statement from the regulator. “This obligation includes our monitoring of the emerging generation of eVTOL vehicles. The agency is pursuing a predictable framework that will better meet the need to train and certify the pilots who will operate these new aircraft.

Does this mean for eVTOL companies already quite well on their way to certification?

“All development work done by current applicants remains valid, and changes in our regulatory approach should not delay their projects,” the FAA statement noted. “As this segment of the industry continues to grow, we look forward to certifying innovative new technologies that meet the safety standards the public expects and deserves.”

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The main reason for the rule change, the FAA said, was that it “did not anticipate the need to train pilots in the use of powered lift, which takes off in helicopter mode, switches to airplane mode to fly, then reverts to helicopter mode to land This presumably means that the main implications of changing the category should be in the rules for how eVTOLs are to be flown, not how they are assembled and function .

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