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NASA Working On Advanced Air Mobility

When someone says “NASA,” the usual image conjured up is outer space.  But NASA has a large role in both manned and unmanned aviation as well.  This week, NASA announced two new participants in its Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign, an initiative that the agency is using to integrate emerging aircraft like eVTOLs and urban air mobility vehicles into the national airspace system.  (NASA has partnered with both the Federal Aviation Administration and the aviation industry to test and certify these new types of aircraft.)

eVTOL-maker Wisk and Alaka’I Technologies, which has a futuristic-looking, hydrogen-powered air taxi, have joined the NASA program.

“Our vehicle partnerships are critical to NASA and the industry success in AAM,” said Davis Hackenberg, AAM mission integration manager, in announcing the new partners. “These partnerships are the cornerstone of our data collection that will support standardization, certification and eventually the operational approval for safe and scalable UAM operations.”

NASA’s involvement with the emerging aviation sector might sound like it might extend beyond the space agency’s charge, but there is no other government body with the institutional knowledge and resources to test and quantify these experimental vehicles, which are moving past the initial design phase and ready for flight.  Uber Elevate, which has partnered with several eVTOL manufacturers including Joby, has said it plans to have an urban air network operational sometime in 2023.  And German eVTOL manufacturer Lilium announced last week that it had signed a deal with the City of Orlando to set up a working regional network for its electric craft that is scheduled to launch in 2025.

To test the practical flight applications, NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) National Campaign NC-1 will begin soon.  NASA will begin to assess vehicle readiness for a number of new aircraft designs. The test process will start next month, with NASA using a helicopter as a surrogate UAM to develop a data baseline for future flight testing.  In 2021, Joby Aviation will use its air-taxi to design flight scenarios for participants to fly as well as range deployment and data-collecting protocols for when the actual aircraft testing begins in 2022.

The concept of urban air mobility and vertical aircraft may still seem like the realm of sci-fi, but the pressures of urban life are accelerating the need for new ways of travel.  According to recent forecasts, nearly 65 percent of the world’s population will live in urban centers by 2050.  Even by 2025, studies suggest that the US will lose $1.2 trillion in gross domestic product because of congested roads and public transit limitations.  The solution, many see, is in the sky above us.