FAA AIR-1 shows to the path to eVTOL certification and operation

design test and cert
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Normal Aircraft Certification is a challenge

Determining Airworthiness of Innovative eVTOLs even more difficult

Evolving processes and criteria with no history

Real world testing reduces unknown

FAA uncomfortable with risks; entrepreneurs not

The FAA Executive Director of Aircraft Certification recently announced her philosophy for approving eVTOL certification applications. Some might regard her statement as inhibiting innovation, but given the agency’s safety mission, her position is positive, practical and proactive. The bases for Ms. Liu’s policy articulation[1] can be found in the existing FARs and the regulatory history of UASs.

Aviation Safety Regulation is not well equipped to deal with innovation. The entrepreneurs tend to have aggressive schedules; risk is a condition with which they are comfortable and compensated. Those charged with protecting those in flight are bound by the Administrative Procedure Act, have a job description to increase safety and are more likely to be fired for mistakes than see added pay for thinking outside of the regulations. Patience is an effective tool for advancing your case with the FAA.

eVTOL tempus fugit

Dealing with the FAA is not easy; simple things like acronyms, citations to FARs, ACs, Orders, etc., and jargon make it difficult for the novice to keep up. Usually these references are made as though their mere mention means something significant that anyone MUST know. One of the biggest challenges is advocacy—it’s hard to present your case without emotion in your voice showing frustrations over inconceivable delays or repeated requests for data that appears irrelevant to you. It appearsFAA maze to be an unfathomable maze for which a guide is needed.

The primary lesson of the Executive Director is that reduction of  risk analysis is best justified  by practical test results. The agency can rely on the numbers to determine the airworthiness –overall of the aircraft and as to proposed operations.

A retrospective of the development of UASs shows that:

 testing started on February 14, 2013;

restricted TC issued July 26, 2013;

first commercial flight September 12,2013;

1st UAS Roadmap issued November 7, 2013;

1st Uncrewed Aerial System certification June 26, 2014; Operational Approval of UAS use in films September 25, 2014;

two significant safety initiatives, December 2014;

proposed Part 107 framework issued February 15,2015;

UAS registration proposed, December 14, 2015;

250,000 UAS registered January 26, 2016;

1st practical UAS delivery approved March 10,2016


Then Height restrictions were extended, night operations approved, BVLOS and other original operational limitations removed based on experiences!!!

Ultimate movement towards eVTOL type certification, commercial operational authorities and the like will be expedited by cooperating with, not confronting, the FAA.

conflict v. cooperation



As the aviation industry enters a new “golden age” ripe with innovation, regulators have been struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of technological advancements. With no new regulatory framework to govern novel technologies designed for advanced air mobility (AAM), such as eVTOL air taxis, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration sees a need to make some changes to its certification processes. So said the agency’s executive director of Aircraft Certification Service, Lirio Liu, during the opening day of the Revolution Aero conference in San Francisco on September 12. 

To accommodate the blooming AAM industry in the meantime, the agency needs to be flexible in applying existing regulations for conventional aircraft to new technologies, according to Liu. “This new golden age of aviation is truly amazing, but it clearly presents some challenges for the FAA,” she said. “Our current regulations are designed over years for the traditional airplanes and helicopters and their operations, FAA HDQ with eVTOL and planeand we’re not seeing just airplanes and helicopters and the same operations.”

Liu’s keynote speech to Revolution Aero delegates covering a broad cross-section of AAM stakeholders came four months after the FAA unsettled the nascent industry with suggestions that it felt the need to make fundamental changes to the way new aircraft are certified. It was reported that the regulator intends to switch to a process in which “powered-lift” eVTOL designs will be certified as a “special class” under its 21.17 (b) regulations, rather than under the 14 CFR Part 23 rules used for most small fixed-wing aircraft. Liu, an FAA veteran[2], was appointed to her current position in May around the time of the apparent change of approach by the agency.

The agency subsequently sought to play down the scale and pace of any changes to previously understood regulatory processes. But while eVTOL aircraft developers haveVertical Flight Society not openly pushed back against the possible changes, the Vertical Flight Society complained at the time of “a lack of clarity and consistency” on the part of the FAA. Liu did not specifically address the question of the 21.17 (b) rules in her presentation.

In addition to electric aircraft and eVTOL air taxis, the FAA is now also faced with certifying new flight technologies, such as artificial intelligence for pilotless aircraft, electric and hydrogen-powered propulsion systems, supersonic and hypersonic aircraft, and sustainable aviation fuels. The advent of these new technologies has exposed some gaps in the FAA’s regulatory framework, but that hasn’t stopped the agency from providing the necessary approval to bring such innovations to market—although the certification process can be time-consuming.

“Amid all this innovation, the FAA has a proven track record for safely certifying and integrating the new and novel designs and safety-enhancing technologies into the national airspace system,” Liu said, pointing to examples like uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS), autopilot technologies, and the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) system. 

engineers working“Despite regulatory gaps…our ongoing certification work is possible because we can leverage our current regulatory framework,” Liu said. “We have flexibilities in that framework. We don’t always use them, but we’re getting better and better at doing that. Those frameworks will allow us to have technical policy specialists to develop project-specific regulatory requirements tailored to the unique aspects and the new designs we’re seeing. These flexibilities can come in the form of special conditions or unique airworthiness criteria which we call a special class.”

Liu explained that, when integrating new technologies and designs, the FAA is taking a risk-based incremental approach, also known as an operations-first approach, to authorize operations using existing regulations and get new aircraft flying sooner. “Once we have the aircraft in the air flying, we’re able to take advantage of the lessons learned from these operations that we had approved to help us start refining that future policy,” she said. “Doing this, we’ve been able to better target our regulatory focus while ensuring that innovation drives the industry forward.”

One example of the FAA’s operations-first approach is how the agency enabled drone flights through its Part 107 rules that cover small UAS. “We allowed certain operations [and] made the exemptions, so we gained those lessons learned.”

“While it may at times be a challenge for a safety-focused regulator like the FAA to keep pace with the speed of the private-sector innovators, I’m happy to say that the FAA is committed to ensuring that we have a robust, agile certification system, along with a strong and capable organization to accommodate new and novel design ideas,” Liu said.

UAS example


[1] Curiously the article (speech, too?) did not mention the recent involvement of ASTM in Part 23 applications involving new technology. One would assume that such an extension of regulatory resources

[2]  (i)Executive Director for the Office for International Affairs; (ii)Executive Director for Operational Safety in the Commercial Space Transportation Office; (iii)Office of Aviation Safety-Executive Director for Rulemaking, Designated Federal Officer for the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee ( International Civil Aviation Organization, European Aviation Safety Authority and Transport Canada0, (iv)Special Technical Assistant to the Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety and to the Director of Aircraft Certification Service(v) Los Angeles Aircraft Certification Office –structural engineer working on type certification and supplemental type certification programs for rotorcraft, large transport, and small airplanes. (vi)the Manager of the Seattle Aircraft Certification Office.


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