Though the FAA maintains it won’t affect certification timelines, the agency announced yesterday (May 9) that it was revising its certification protocols for electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Rather than performance-driven requirements as mandated under Part 23 (small-aircraft) certification rules (as previously planned), now eVTOLs will be evaluated as “powered-lift” aircraft, a category originally established to accommodate civil tiltrotors such as the Leonardo AW609.
The implications of the new arrangement are confusing and said to be potentially troubling from the perspective of investment capital for eVTOL developers such as Joby Aviation, Archer and Beta Technologies. All three have said they expect FAA certification in 2024.
According to a Reuters report, the impetus for the shift came from an ongoing audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General. The IG said so-called Urban Air Mobility vehicles present the FAA with “new and complex safety challenges.”
From yesterday’s FAA statement: “The FAA’s [Part 23 certification] regulations were designed for traditional airplanes and helicopters. However, these regulations did not anticipate the need to train pilots to operate powered-lift, which take off in helicopter mode, transition into airplane mode for flying, and then transition back to helicopter mode for landing.”
What makes the FAA statement confusing is the mention of “long-term” plans to develop future regulations for eVTOLs in the powered-lift category regarding “operations and pilot training.” Meanwhile, however, in the short term the FAA cited plans to create a “special class” process—under FAR 21.17(b) rules—that will reportedly incorporate Part 23’s performance-based airworthiness standards.
“This ‘special class’ process is designed to address the many novel features of unique aircraft such as these emerging powered-lift designs,” according to the agency. “This regulatory framework already exists, and this approach is consistent with international standards.”
In a written response to a request for clarification, an FAA spokesperson told AVweb:
“The FAA’s top priority is to make sure the flying public is safe. This obligation includes our oversight of the emerging generation of eVTOL vehicles. The agency is pursuing a predictable framework that will better accommodate the need to train and certify the pilots who will operate these novel aircraft.
“Our process for certifying the aircraft themselves remains unchanged. All of the development work done by current applicants remains valid and the changes in our regulatory approach should not delay their projects. As this segment of the industry continues to grow, we look forward to certifying innovative new technologies that meet the safety standards that the public expects and deserves.”