“We’ve witnessed a significant shift in focus toward [AAM] across the entire aviation industry,” noted former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, the panel’s moderator. “Some of us think that we’re on the verge of something very exciting, but there’s also a lot of skepticism among traditional aviators for how this is going to evolve.”
While he cautioned “don’t hold me to this [prediction],” Chris Rocheleau, acting associate administrator for aviation safety at the FAA, believes the first commercial AAM vehicle could be certified as soon as late 2023. That timeframe places significant pressure on the agency to have a regulatory framework in place.
“We really see AAM as a ‘system of systems’ going into a very safe and secure aviation ecosystem,” he said. “Part of our role will be to educate newcomers to how the complex airspace system, and that there are rules and regulations to abide by as you enter that airspace.”
While much of the focus on AAM has been on commercial uses, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is also looking closely at potential military applications, said Col. Martin Salinas, chief operating officer for AFWERX, the USAF advanced technologies program.
In 2020, AFWERX launched the Agility Prime initiative to accelerate commercial AAM development with an eye toward these potential uses. “The primary intent was to explain to even our own crowd within the DOD and within the Air Force that this technology is here, this technology is real,” he said. “We can look across this [exhibit] floor here and see examples of the technology.”
Salinas noted that approach differs from traditional procurement routes. “We don’t typically start with a specific requirement from a specific user; you have to look at it from the other way around,” he said. “What’s interesting in this approach is as you scour the commercial market, you have to be sensitive to the commercial use case.”
Another challenge comes from the sheer number of AAM vehicles in development, using different methods of lift, propulsion and control that must nevertheless all function safely and predictably in the national airspace system. “There’s incredible excitement and promise for these new technologies,” Rocheleau said, “but all of this has to factor into what’s going on in the skies these days.”