Aircraft

On Thursday, January 16, 2020, the Official Report of the Special Committee to review the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aircraft Certification Process was released, and it seems like quite a few people – i.e. very vocal critics of Boeing and the FAA – are not likely to be pleased by the lack of lambasting language in the report. This is only the most recent development in the still-unfolding story of the Boeing 737 MAX passenger airliner, the aircraft at the center of the two fatal crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 that killed 346 people in total. The committee’s report has been released amid outcry over recently disclosed internal documents diplomatically labelled as “troubling” and reports of impending job cuts and layoffs from companies within the Boeing 737 MAX supply chain. “Troubling” may be putting it mildly.

“The Committee applauds the remarkable gains in safety achieved by U.S. aviation and recognizes the safety benefits provided to the worldwide aviation system. However, each member of the Committee fully acknowledges the two foundational premises that risk will always exist in aviation and that no fatality in commercial aviation is acceptable.”

Official Report of the Special Committee to review the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Process, Executive Summary, page 6

With all of this currently happening, now is a good time for a bit of background to get up to speed. On October 29, 2018, Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 departed from Jakarta and crashed into the Java Sea twelve minutes later, killing all 189 passengers and crew on board. Less than five months later on March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 departed from Addis Ababa and flew for only six minutes before plummeting directly into a field at almost 700 miles per hour. Once again, all passengers and crew on board, totaling 157 people, were killed in the crash.

In the interim between the two crashes, partial fault was tentatively attributed to malfunctions in one of the aircraft’s Angle of Attack (AOA) sensors (check out these sources for a relatively clear and more in-depth explanation of the technical side of this).The MAX was equipped with the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), an automated system designed to activate and correct the problem when the AOA began to reach unsafe levels. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. Erroneous AOA readings during both flights led to MCAS automatically activating, pitching the nose of the aircraft down while pilot and co-pilot fought to right the aircraft. This happened repeatedly until the planes ultimately crashed.

Today, in the aftermath of the two planes crashing, it’s understood that the single faulty AOA sensor and MCAS are among a number of factors that caused the accidents. Since then, Boeing and the FAA have had no shortage of critics. Going into the entire timeline of events would take quite a while, so here are some highlights: the MAX was grounded around the world and the grounding remains in effect today; Boeing reportedly misled FAA regulators as to the full extent of MCAS’s abilities and failed to mention the system in pilots’ manuals; and the international aviation community has come down hard on the FAA’s certification process, with some countries demanding changes before it will allow the MAX to return to service. (A timeline of pretty much everything can be found here.)

“The FAA’s certification system is a process sanctioned by Congress, driven by regulation, directed by the FAA, and implemented by certified organizations and individuals. It is an iterative, comprehensive process grounded in the cumulative expertise of the FAA gained through over a half century of process management and oversight.”

Official Report of the Special Committee to review the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Process, Executive Summary, page 6

Clearly, Boeing and the FAA are ready for the plot twists to come to an end and the Special Committee’s report must seem like a small point of light in an incredibly long, bleak, and dark night. My personal flair for dramatics aside, the report does seem to come to different conclusions than most. The Committee, made up of five aviation safety experts chosen by Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, was formed to review: 1) “the FAA’s product certification process, the use of delegated authority, and the approval and oversight of designees”, and 2) “the certification process applied to the Boeing 737 MAX 8, which occurred from 2012 to 2017.” While the report does provide a number of recommendations, the Committee ultimately came to the conclusions that the FAA’s current certification process based on delegated authority is good one and that the FAA and Boeing followed the required process in certifying the MAX.

“As reflected by the safety statistics cited above, the Committee found that the FAA’s certification system is effective and a significant contributor to the world’s safest aviation system.”

Official Report of the Special Committee to review the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Process, Executive Summary, page 6

The report also cautions against a complete overhaul of the FAA’s delegation of authority framework for the certification process. However, members of Congress couldn’t seem to disagree more, especially after a slew of internal communications showing Boeing employees saying some pretty damning things were released earlier this month – calling regulators ‘clowns’ is never a good call. One particularly vocal FAA critic and crusader for legislative action is Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Pulling no punches, DeFazio has stated that “the FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the traveling public” in allowing the MAX to fly despite knowing the risks.

“Any radical changes to this system could undermine the collaboration and expertise that undergird the current certification system, jeopardizing the remarkable level of safety that has been attained in recent decades.”

Official Report of the Special Committee to review the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Process, Executive Summary, page 8

The question now is how, or even if, this report will impact the calls for change. Recent plot twists caution that there’s no telling what will happen next.

Imagine that you and your friends go out for a night on the town. By the time you are well and tired, it seems as though everyone else simultaneously had the same idea. With everyone around you clamoring to call an Uber or Lyft, you and your friends take one look at the gridlocked streets and agree that the roads are just not the way to go tonight. However, the skies look clear and traffic-free, so why not take a helicopter across town? While this may seem like the start of a very odd joke, it’s a future that Los Angeles-based startup up Skyryse is looking to bring to the present and a reality that is closer than you might think.

“Skyryse is on a mission to get people where they want to be quickly, affordably and safely.”

Skyryse, Our Vision

While this may be enough to start stirring up the questions in your mind, here’s another twist to Skyrise’s plans for urban travel: fully automated flight. In mid-December Skyrise held a demonstration highlighting a helicopter that took off, flew for fifteen minutes, and then landed, all fully automated.

The demonstration showed a lot of what Skyryse has in mind for making urban air mobility a widely adopted norm for traveling short distances. For one, Skyryse unveiled its Skyryse Flight Stack, which “comprises of technology that automates flight in [Federal Aviation Administration]-approved helicopters, safety and communication systems, and a network of smart helipads to ultimately create a new transportation system.”

“Unlike other companies building autonomous vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft from scratch or only for the military, Skyryse refits existing consumer-grade, dependable and certified aircraft and technologies with software and hardware innovations.”

PRNewswire.com

Simply put, Skyryse isn’t building new aircraft, it’s taking what already works and adding a little bit of spice. The company’s goal is to develop a fully autonomous VTOL flight system that can be installed in both legacy and future helicopter models, as well as helipads capable of communicating with the outfitted aircraft information such as changing weather conditions or low-flying objects. Skyryse aims to become the first fully operational air taxi service available to the public that doesn’t break the bank.

Now, you may be thinking that a self-flying helicopter is a ride on which you would rather not be a passenger but have no fear. Passengers on aircraft in Skyryse’s fleet are accompanied by a trained and certified pilot who oversees the flight system and can take over the controls in the event of an emergency or potential malfunction. While this does leave open the potential for awkward conversation, it does add an extra layer of safety and checks on the autonomous system.

I personally think this sounds incredible, if it can–no pun intended–get off the ground. Why not take to the skies to avoid the mad rush of cars and congestion of city streets? And why not use already available aircraft to do it? It all makes sense and seems pretty logical. However, we all know that logic does not always guarantee success.

My main concerns surround public perceptions and pricing. For perception, I am curious about the projected amount of time it will take before there is enough demand to justify a supply. How long will air taxi companies have to advertise and ultimately wait before enough people know about and trust their autonomous aircraft? As for pricing, the concerns and questions are probably pretty clear. How is this going to be affordable for everyone, and when? It has been reported that Skyryse plans to release the details of how it will achieve affordable pricing at some point this year. I for one am looking forward to the day when I can hop in line at a helipad and quickly fly across town, all without breaking the bank.

As audiences worldwide await the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a few recent developments in transportation technology are taking cues (directly or indirectly) from the technology of a galaxy far, far away.

Last week, the opening ceremony of a new ride at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the Star Wars themed land at Walt Disney World, included actual flying X-Wing starfighters, built from Boeing-made drones. There are two important things to take from this development: (1) Boeing is apparently now a supplier for General Leia Organa’s Resistance, and; (2) Boeing is confident enough in their “Cargo Air Vehicle” drone to allow a highly-publicized public display. The all-electric Cargo Air Vehicle flew for the first time earlier this year, and is designed to carry up to 500 lbs. of cargo at a time. I’ve written about aerial delivery drones before, in October and September, but this new Boeing vehicle has a much higher carrying capacity than the smaller drones those articles focused on. Of course, a highly controlled environment like a major theme park is perhaps not as challenging an environment as the vehicles would face elsewhere, the visibility of this deployment raises interesting questions about Boeing’s future plans for the testing and deployment of the vehicles.

Another emerging technology that is attempting to recreate the Star Wars universe here on Earth is flying taxis. A number of prototype flying taxis have been revealed over the past few years, though none have the smooth lines of those seen in Star Wars, or the retro-styling of another sci-fi mainstay, the Jetson’s car. In June, Uber showed off the design of their proposed air taxi, an electric vehicle they will be testing in LA and Dallas in 2020. Industry boosters see a future with many such vehicles crisscrossing major metro areas (hmmm…where have I seen that before…). However, there are a number of challenges:

  • How do you make them cost-effective? Aircraft are expensive, and the proposed air taxis are no different. So how do you make them efficient enough to justify their cost? Will making them electric do the trick, or will the cost of batteries and other equipment sink the concept?
  • What is the economy of scale for this type of transportation? Right now, Uber offers helicopter flights from Manhattan to JFK Airport for $200-225 a person. If an air taxi ride has similar costs, how many people will really take advantage of them?
  • What infrastructure will they need? Where are they going to land? Uber has mocked-up glossy “skyport” designs, which they say will combine street-level mobility with their aerial offerings, but how many of these will be necessary if more than one company operates in a given metro area? Will skyports proliferate? In some cities, like London, there is already a scramble for roof space to transform into landing pads for air taxis and drones.
  • How do we regulate these vehicles? Between the aerial taxis and delivery drones, the skies would seem to be primed for traffic jams. Does the FAA retain full control over everything flying, or will states and even municipalities have to step in to help regulate a proliferation of flying vehicles?

Just like connected and automate vehicles, air taxes mix promising new technology with a sci-fi edge. It remains to be seen if air taxis will actually prove cost-effective enough to function for anyone other than the wealthy, but if Disney World’s use of drone X-Wings is any indication, a new hope for aerial vehicles may be just around the corner.

P.S. – Those who are skeptical of self-driving vehicles may have found a new patron saint in The Mandalorian, who turns down a droid-piloted speeder in favor of one driven by a person (also, apparently Uber service in the Outer Rim involves flutes?). To be fair, Mando later has some issues with his adorable companion playing with the controls of his ship, proving that humanoid controlled vehicles are still prone to problems (Han could have told him that).

This is the much-delayed second part in a series of posts I started earlier this year. In that first post I discussed how companies are experimenting with small delivery robots that crawl along sidewalks to deliver goods right to your door. However, the sidewalk is not the only place where delivery drones may soon be found, as many companies are interested in using aerial drones to bring their products right to consumers.

In April, Wing, a division of Google parent company Alphabet, was given approval to start delivering goods via drone in Canberra, Australia. At launch, the drones were delivering food, medicine, and other products from 12 local businesses. This formal launch came after a trial period that ran for 18 months and 3,000 deliveries. Also in April, Wing received an FAA certification typically used for small airlines, as they begin to plan U.S. based tests, again with the intent to partner with local businesses. Not to be left behind, in June Amazon revealed it’s own delivery drone, which is indented to bring good directly from their warehouses to nearby customers within 30 minutes. Also in June, Uber announced a plan to partner with McDonalds to test delivery drones in San Diego. In Ohio, a partnership between the Air Force and the state government will allow drones to test outside of line-of-sight (a range that most civilian drones are currently limited to by the FAA). One company that intends to take part in the Ohio testing is VyrtX, which is looking to use drones to deliver human organs for transplant. 

But just what would wider use of such delivery drones mean for society? What would it mean to live in a world with robots buzzing around above our heads? In the Australian tests there were complaints about noise, with some residents claiming the sound of the machines caused them significant distress. In January of this year an unidentified drone shut down London’s Heathrow Airport, showing what can happen when drones wander into places they’re not welcome. In February of this year NASA announced two tests of “urban drone traffic management,” one in Texas, and the other in Nevada. Such a system would no doubt be necessary before widespread deployment of any of the systems so far proposed – to prevent incidents like the one in London.   

There is also a major privacy concern with drones collecting data as they fly above homes and businesses. This concern extends beyond just what privately owned drones may find, but also what law enforcement could collect. In Florida v. Riley, a 1988 case, the Supreme Court found that there is not reasonable expectation of privacy from aircraft (in that case, a police helicopter) flying in navigable airspace above a person’s home, when the air craft is flying within FAA regulations. So drones would provide a useful tool for investigations, and one that is limited only by FAA rules.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about delivery drones – and given the highly-regulated nature of all forms of air travel, the federal government, via the FAA, currently has a lot of power over just what can go on in U.S. airspace. What remains to be seen is if this regulatory structure will stifle drone development or instead insure that any market for delivery drones is developed deliberately, rather than ad hoc, with an emphasis on safety.

P.S. – A brief follow-up to my last article – Ford recently partnered with Agility Robotics on a new form of last mile delivery bot, a bipedal unit designed to carry up to 40 pounds. Could it become the C-3PO to the R2-D2-like bots already in testing?