Hello, and welcome to the Future of FLYING newsletter, our weekly look at the biggest stories in emerging aviation technology. From low-altitude drones to high-flying rockets at the edge of the atmosphere, we’ll take you on a tour of the modern flying world to help you make sense of it all.
Now for this week’s top story:
It’s Official: eVTOL Flies Commercially in U.S. for First Time
What happened? With all the focus on electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxis—and their looming entry into service targets—you may have missed that the first commercial eVTOL flight actually took place this week. That claim belongs to Guardian Agriculture, which on Monday began autonomously spraying crops for a customer in California’s Salinas Valley.
Welcome to the club: With Guardian’s launch of commercial operations, eVTOL aircraft are officially a part of the national airspace, albeit a tiny one. The company produces the SC1, an autonomous design for sustainable farming that can cover up to 60 acres in an hour—about the same as a conventional agricultural aircraft. FAA authorization to fly it nationwide was obtained in March.
The SC1 flies without a pilot, and no manual controls are required to operate it. The 12-by-12-foot craft is compact enough to fit in the back of a flatbed truck but powerful enough to carry up to 200 pounds. It runs on a 100 percent electric powertrain.
Only the beginning? Today, Guardian is only flying four aircraft. But in the future, the FAA, lawmakers, and local officials expect hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of eVTOL designs to join them in the skies, ferrying passengers, delivering cargo, or spraying crops like the SC1. A few personal eVTOL aircraft are expected to fly next year, while the air taxis aim for 2025.
Guardian’s launch won’t directly impact those timelines, but it could have significant effects on the industry. Public acceptance of the technology, for example, could be swayed by proven, safe operations—or by an accident. The FAA, meanwhile, could look to Guardian’s initial services to inform future rulemaking and certification processes.
Quick quote: “This is a watershed moment for sustainable farming and a giant leap forward for eVTOL technology. While several companies are developing eVTOL technologies, we are now the only one that has both secured FAA approval to operate commercially nationwide, and that’s actually started flying missions on behalf of paying customers,” said Adam Bercu, Guardian founder and CEO.
My take: eVTOL still seems like a fantasy to some, and some announced designs may never see the sky. But the first wave of aircraft is already airborne. And while the design may never be as pervasive as conventional turboprops or rotorcraft, we will certainly see more enter the market in the coming years, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Four Guardian eVTOLs won’t have much of an impact (if any) on other aircraft. But their introduction should be viewed as a reminder that more—and much larger—designs are scheduled to arrive soon. The FAA and individual states still need to lay more groundwork to prepare for that influx: Vertiports, electric aircraft chargers, and other advanced air mobility (AAM) infrastructure could dictate the industry’s early success or failure.
In Other News…
Lilium Kicks Off Production of eVTOL Jet
What happened? The German electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) manufacturer said it delivered the first fuselage for its Lilium Jet to its final assembly line this week—and it’s ready to start building. The first seven electric jet models will be used in a flight test campaign with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
Red hot: Lilium has been in the news plenty recently. The manufacturer has been moving steadily through type certification, adding new launch markets and distributors, and assembling components for its flagship seven-seat eVTOL Jet. Now, the company says it’s ready to begin putting all those pieces together, shifting from design to production.
Assembly of the inaugural Jet is expected to start before year’s end, with crewed flights of the first model for EASA beginning in 2024. The aim of that campaign is to achieve type certification of the eVTOL in 2025, with entry into service following soon after. At the same time, Lilium is working with the FAA to certify the Jet for the U.S. market.
NASA and the U.S. Air Force Team on AAM
What happened? Two U.S. agencies working to usher in the era of advanced air mobility (AAM) are stepping up their partnership. NASA said it will work with AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation arm, to develop and build a digital operations center for electric air taxi and other AAM operations nationwide. AFWERX is also working closely with the FAA.
What will it look like? Right now, it’s tough to say. What is known is that the system will be designed to enhance base security, special forces capabilities, emergency disaster response, and passenger and cargo transportation planning. ResilienX, an awardee of a NASA funding program, will lead a consortium tasked with building the center.
Initially, a single digital operations center will be constructed at Syracuse Hancock International Airport (KSYR), with plans to test and transition it to other locations by 2025. Both NASA and the Air Force have made AAM integration a priority, so their collaboration—whatever it looks like—may have sizable implications for the industry.
And a Few More Headlines:
- Manufacturer Rotor Technologies unveiled its R550X uncrewed helicopter and says it has begun production.
- French OEM Daher’s Eco-Pulse demonstrator completed its first hybrid-electric flight.
- Counter-drone company D-Fend Solutions renewed its collaboration with the FAA to test airport detection and mitigation.
- Reliable Robotics achieved history with a fully autonomous cargo flight of an uncrewed Cessna 208B Caravan.
- A Nigerian military drone mistakenly struck a festival, killing 85 civilians and raising questions about the technology’s safety.
On the Horizon…
The AAM aircraft are coming, and the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) is working to make sure U.S. states are ready for vertical takeoff (and landing).
The association on Wednesday introduced “AAM Prepared,” a multistate initiative designed to support certain state AAM policy proposals and educate lawmakers on what safe integration will look like. It’s supported by a who’s who of industry players: Boeing, Archer Aviation, Joby Aviation, Wisk Aero, Beta Technologies, Lilium, Volocopter, Overair, Wing, Skyports…and the list goes on.
The program will push for state lawmakers to add infrastructure—such as vertiports and electric aircraft chargers—to their transportation plans, appoint local AAM subject matter experts, and support statewide planning and zoning language. In short, it’s designed to lay the groundwork for early operations.
There’s plenty to keep an eye on in the drone space too.
Perhaps the most consequential is the looming expiration of the United States’ federal authority to bring down illegal drones. The unauthorized aircraft have popped up over schools, sporting events, and of course airports. They pose safety hazards not only to onlookers below, but also to other aircraft flying at low altitude or in controlled airspace. According to the FBI, hamstrung federal agencies could create serious issues.
As lawmakers work to renew federal counter-drone authority, they’re also calling on the U.S. Defense, Commerce, and Treasury departments to sanction a Chinese drone manufacturer—and it’s not DJI. This time, Autel Robotics has caught the ire of Congress, as a bipartisan group of 11 representatives requested an investigation in the name of national security. The Pentagon already has said it will respond to the lawmakers’ letter.
And last but certainly not least: if you’re looking to fly a drone—or give one as a gift to a first-time pilot—the FAA wants you to know your stuff. This week, the regulator announced its annual “12 Days of Drones” holiday safety campaign, which will educate fliers on the rules, regulations, and best practices of operation. The event kicked off Thursday with a guide to the Recreational UAS Safety Test and will run through December 22.
Mark Your Calendars
Each week, I’ll be running through a list of upcoming industry events. ICAO Drone Enable wrapped up Thursday in Montreal, but here are a few conferences to keep an eye on:
- 11th Annual eVTOL Symposium—February 6-8 in Silicon Valley, California
- Drone Show Korea 2024—March 6-8 in Busan, South Korea
- World’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Conference—March 17-19 in Jerusalem
- AUVSI Xponential 2024—April 22-25 in San Diego
- Vertical Flight Society’s Forum 80—May 7-9 in Montreal
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