House Committee Takes Off with FAA R&D Plans

On Thursday, March 9, the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics under the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee met to discuss the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) research and development programs and future plans. Chaired by Representative Brian Babin (R-TX), the subcommittee explored the breadth and effectiveness of government R&D in the aviation industry.

Three witnesses testified at the hearing (click on their name to read their prepared testimony):

  • Shelly Yak, Director, FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center
  • R John Hansman – Director, International Center for Air Transportation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Chair, FAA Research, Engineering and Development Advisory Committee (REDAC)
  • Eric Cunningham, Vice President, Electric Power Systems, Collins Aerospace

Research and development have always been important to innovation in the aviation industry. The FLIGHT R&D Act of 2017-18, a part of the FAA reauthorization bill, created a new assistant administrator position and increased funding for safety research, said Chairman Babin. Recent events, such as the contentious 5G-spectrum rollout adjacent to the band used by aircraft radio altimeters, near misses between aircraft at both LaGuardia and Austin-Bergstrom Airports, and the failure of the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system that resulted in the grounding of aircraft nationwide for the first time since September 11, 2001, have put a spotlight on specific areas where research and development may be needed. As Congress prepares for FAA reauthorization this fall, this subcommittee hopes to evaluate the successes, constraints, and financial needs of research and development at the FAA.

Shelly Yak began with testimony identifying the six issue areas of the FAA’s research and development: (1) Airport Technologies and Infrastructure, (2) Aircraft Safety Assurance, (3) Digital Systems and Technologies, (4) Environment and Weather Mitigation, (5) Human and Aeromedical Factors, and (6) Aerospace Performance and Planning. Within these issue areas, subcommittee members inquired about specific R&D issues at the FAA:

Sustainable Aviation Fuels: Chair Babin asked about the progress towards the approval of an unleaded fuel alternative, as the 2013 reauthorization directed the FAA and NASA to examine and approve an alternative to leaded fuels used in piston aircraft (almost exclusively used for general aviation) by 2018. Yak reports that the Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative (PAFI) and the Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions (EAGLE) initiatives have led to the testing of alternative fuels. One fuel has been identified with some discrepancies that they are working through, and another is undergoing a 150-hour engine durability test, indicating that a solution may soon be approved. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) also expressed interest in unleaded fuels, as an airport in her district has stopped selling leaded fuels due to pollution concerns to the surrounding area. Dr. Hansman assured her that the slow development time is not due to the duplication of standards development both at the FAA and by external voluntary organizations.

Connected Aviation Systems: Chair Babin asked about the effectiveness of data sharing and connected systems in aviation. Cunningham indicated that as one of Collins Aviation’s six business units, connected aviation systems are a priority. The more data that can be connected to created safe flight profiles and help guide effective management of the airspace, the better.

Weather and Turbulence: Ranking Member Eric Sorensen (D-IL) asked about the considerations of weather on new airspace entrants such as unmanned aircraft. Dr. Hansman acknowledged that weather and unmanned aircraft can be tricky, as currently with manned aircraft, pilots make a decision based on the data available to them as to whether or not to fly through a thunderstorm, for example. It is unclear how to identify when an autonomous system is advanced enough to make that decision. Additionally, the FAA is focusing on how to better present weather information to flight crews. Making the system more connected has its benefits, but it also creates a greater cybersecurity risk. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI) expressed concerns about increased turbulence, wondering what mitigation efforts are being made. Dr. Hansman said that there has been a lot of improvement in forecasting and identifying turbulence, but the concern continues around unidentified turbulence. Yak indicated cross agency collaboration with NOAA.

AI and Machine Learning: Rep. Lofgren inquired about the existence of a framework for identifying the risks of AI and machine learning. Dr. Hansman indicated that there is not a clear process for certifying non-deterministic software. Using AI to gather information is different from using it to operate an aircraft, from a safety perspective. It is hard to certify AI today that can change and grow over time.

Alternative Propulsion Systems: Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-NC) asked the panel if there was a consensus pointing towards hybrid electric or hydrogen propulsion. Dr. Hansman said that the research is still ongoing. Hydrogen looks promising, but it is hard to manage and is only clean if the process of obtaining the hydrogen is clean (the hydrogen acts like a battery). Dr. Hansman estimates that commercial viability of hydrogen fuels is still 30 years out, and much research is still needed.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) remain a large unknown in aviation. Certification is challenging, and UAV development lags behind the rest of the world due to the U.S. not allowing operations outside of line of sight, as Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) pointed out. Dr. Hansman said that having a pilot program for the certification of these systems could be helpful.

The panel members’ testimony pointed to the following five big challenges in aviation research and development today:

Technology Maturation: The next round of aircraft developments will incorporate large technological advances to meet sustainability, efficiency, and profitability goals. Certifying large changes and new technologies is challenging in a slow-moving industry.

U.S. Competitiveness: Several global aviation trends, such as orders of magnitude greater research and development funding in other countries, expiration of the research and development tax credit, and increasing pressure on sustainability goals have reduced U.S. aviation’s competitive edge.

Increased Safety Focus: Digital safety models are used in the development process but are developed for a single purpose and are often used in isolation for specific system elements. The advancement of open modeling standards and their broad support and development will be critical to evaluating the safety of newer technologies and systems. Additionally, Dr. Hansman points out that it is challenging to make safety improvements in an aviation system that is as safe as that in the United States. Modernizing an incredibly safe system can be challenging as you may be introducing greater risk to the system.

Sustainability: The aviation industry is focusing on increased sustainability, both in the operation and manufacturing of its aircraft. There is much technological advancement needed to meet sustainability goals, which can take years to regulate and implement.

Workforce Development: A lack of development and certification of new aircraft and new technologies has negatively impacted the aviation workforce, alongside reduced demand and workforce aging. Challenging financial situations have also resulted in reduced staffing.

The following recommendations emerged from the panel members throughout their testimony:

  • Increase authorized funding for R&D partnerships between the FAA, academic institutions, and private industry.
  • Align Federal R&D around the key technology areas necessary to demonstrate efficiency, sustainability, and competitiveness.
  • Improve sustainable fuels research and transition programs.
  • Improve coordination with NASA on flight technology roadmaps, funding, and flight testing.
  • Identify pathways for the certification and introductions of new technologies into the national airspace system such as hydrogen and hybrid-electric propulsion, AI and machine learning, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

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