Environmental Sustainability and Equitable Access Key Points in Hearing on Future Aviation Technologies

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation held a hearing this week on recent advances in aerospace technologies. Unlike recent hearings, “The Leading Edge: Innovation in U.S. Aerospace” was less focused on the established industry recovering from the current COVID-19 healthcare crisis. Instead, it examined emerging and future technologies and their potential to reshape access in metropolitan areas and around the Earth.

Evident of this broader, futuristic focus was the group of panelists called on to testify:

  1. The Honorable Eric Garcetti, Mayor, City of Los Angeles, California. Accompanied by Ms. Seleta Reynolds, General Manager, Los Angeles Department of Transportation. Among other things, the Mayor is leading an effort to build a regional network of electric passenger and freight aircraft.
  2. James L. Grimsley, Executive Director, Advanced Technology Initiatives, The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Mr. Grimsley said the Choctaw Nation was the only Tribe admitted to the FAA’s Integration Pilot Program (IPP) and they are examining how drones could enhance agriculture and bring other mobility benefits.
  3. Adam Bry, Chief Executive Officer, Skydio. He discussed how public policies are helping to enable a domestic manufacturing base of drones to bring benefits to applications ranging from infrastructure inspection to national defense.
  4. Pierre Harter, Director of Research & Development, National Institute for Aviation Research, Wichita State University. He mentioned how research in materials, fuels, and other aspects of future aviation technologies can help keep the United States a leader in the field.
  5. Roei Ganzarski, Chief Executive Officer, magniX. MagniX is working on the “electric age of aviation” by manufacturing domestic battery and hydrogen fuel cell aircraft.
  6. Blake Scholl, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Boom Supersonic. His company is developing U.S.-made aircraft that can fly supersonic over ocean airspace.

Committee members and panelists approached the hearing expressing optimism in the technology. Chairman Rick Larsen (D-WA) opened by indicating that air taxis and flying cars could be part of the transportation system in the near future. (Ed. Note: Flying cars!) Panelists used the myriad terms and acronyms used to describe aviation technologies, including electric vertical takeoff and landing (EVTOL) aircraft, vertiports, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), urban air mobility (UAM), and advanced aerial mobility (AAM). Panelists predicted regular supersonic flight before 2030, a network of EVTOLs in Los Angeles within the next few years, and zero emission aircraft for widespread commercial use within the decade.

Concerns about how these technologies might negatively affect greenhouse gas emissions, noise, equitable access, and safety were addressed throughout the hearing. The panelists brought up these concerns directly in their opening statements. Scholl, Ganzarski, and Garcetti each mentioned the need to have future aviation technologies produce low or zero emissions. Increasing public anxiety about the environment has translated into intense focus within the industry to create zero emission aircraft. Similarly, panelists discussed efforts to ensure that these services are not just for those with economic means. Garcetti and Reynolds specifically mentioned tying their AAM vertiports to public transit nodes and ensuing that low-income populations in Los Angeles could benefit. Similarly, using advanced materials and techniques, the panelists promised significant improvements in noise over existing helicopter and other aircraft.

Congress and the Federal Government were called on to help assist in developing policies to assist the industry. Similar to Eno’s recent recommendations, Grimsley suggested improving the waiver process for UAS to a more standardized framework. Mayor Garcetti requested national standards for low altitude airspace and avoiding regional patchworks. Several panelists recommended more data on the airspace system and its performance to help shape future policymaking.

Of course, whether the technologies are able to meet society’s needs for environmental sustainability, equitable access, and limited noise is yet to be seen. But given those topics were a significant part of the discussion, it is encouraging that the companies developing the technology and the policymakers shaping the industry are serious about ensuring those outcomes.


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