The commercialization of air taxis and other advanced air mobility (AAM) services just moved one step closer to reality.
The FAA on Wednesday released a new blueprint charting the future of the national airspace system (NAS) integration, focusing heavily on how air taxis and other technologies can operate in urban areas.
Version 2.0 of the FAA’s Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Concept of Operations (ConOps), an update to the original 2020 document, brought together FAA and NASA industry partners to provide an industry roadmap for emerging aviation systems. It describes a “crawl-then-walk” approach to enable increasingly more frequent and complex operations via UAM “corridors” akin to highways in the sky.
While the blueprint won’t hold any legal weight, it will serve as a framework for policymakers moving forward.
“The operational blueprint is a key step—along with certifying the aircraft and pilots—in the FAA’s effort to safely usher in and support this next era of aviation,” the agency said. “The blueprint aims to provide a common frame of reference to the FAA, NASA, and industry to help guide their research and decision-making.”
So what’s new? The key addition to Version 2.0 is a three-pronged framework covering initial, midterm and mature operations. At each stage, stakeholders identified six key indicators to keep an eye on, including level of automation, regulatory changes, and the density, frequency and complexity of operations.
Air taxis are expected to begin flying much like helicopters do today. They’ll travel along the same routes and make use of existing infrastructure like helipads and early vertiports, communicating with ATC as needed. The level of automation should also resemble a modern helicopter’s, limited to autopilot, autorotation, and future autoland systems.
Early on, AAM services will likely rely on the current set of regulations, like visual and instrument flight rules. They’ll be limited in scope, with low-frequency, low-density operations, and chances are that a pilot will be on board.
In the midterm, operational tempo is expected to increase, which would necessitate a few key changes.
The biggest is the establishment of dedicated UAM corridors through new regulations, including a mechanism for confirming an aircraft’s operational intent via information like identification, flight schedules and planned routes. These corridors could be supported by new COPs that collaboratively develop norms around UAM interactions, which might reduce the need for ATC to intervene.
By this point, we may also see the introduction of remote pilot-in-command operations and an increased reliance on autonomous flight capabilities.
But UAM operation frequency, density and complexity will remain relatively low until the mature stage, defined as the point when operational tempo ticks up significantly. The blueprint predicts that increased data sharing and the proliferation of vertiports will create networks of UAM corridors, optimizing AAM flight paths. More COPs and regulations will likely be needed to support them.
When the industry matures, autonomous technology may be advanced enough to allow for “human-over-the-loop” operations, wherein flight is controlled autonomously while a human passively monitors for alerts to take action. That should coincide with an uptick in remote pilots.
While the FAA didn’t include an exact timeline for these milestones, the blueprint bodes well for U.S. air taxi and eVTOL startups, several of which have inked deals with major airlines.
Joby Aviation, for example, is partnering with Delta on home-to-airport flights, while rival Archer Aviation is working with United on a commercial air taxi route in the Chicago area. Both companies, and their competitors, stand to benefit from clearer regulations.
Chances are, however, that it will be at least a few more years before you see an air taxi flying overhead. Joby recently pushed back its commercial launch to 2025, and Archer and United are targeting the same year for their Chicago service. And so far, no company has achieved certification for its air taxis.
Clearing up the certification process will be a key next step for the FAA to improve operational safety and reliability. The goal is for air taxis and other AAM services to one day be treated like commercial airline operations, with standardized certifications for different models and applications like passenger transport or cargo deliveries. That’ll be the factor that transforms them from niche offerings into ubiquitous services nationwide.