NASA Starts Flight Testing Campaign With eVTOL Makers to Deliver Flying Taxis

In a break from its space-flight brand, NASA is testing the flight profile of flying taxis, like eVTOLs.
Brad Bergan

For years, NASA has helped SpaceX test and certify the next generation of space flight, but the U.S. agency is also helping next-gen aircraft developers get off the ground.

NASA kicked-off a flight testing campaign after announcing two more participants in its Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign — a transformative initiative the space agency is deploying to integrate new and emerging aircraft like electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOLs) and other air mobility vehicles into the U.S. airspace system, according to a blog post shared on NASA's official website.


NASA starts flight testing campaign for next-gen airspace mobility

NASA is forming partnerships with both innovators in the aviation industry, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to test, evaluate, and certify the next generation of aircraft.

Joby Aviation has continued to work with the U.S. agency, and eVTOL-maker Wisk and Alaka'I Technologies joined the fray earlier this month — which has a futuristic and hydrogen-powered air taxi on the horizon, according to Robb Report.

Kitty Hawk Boeing
eVTOL's maker Wisk joined NASA's campaign for next-gen UAM testing. Source: Kitty Hawk

NASA, partners testing general operations

Flight testing the new series of aircraft starts this December with a test called the National Campaign (NC) Integrated Dry Run Test — which involves a helicopter used as a surrogate urban air mobility (UAM) vehicle to build a baseline of data for the future flight tests with industry partners. These flights will confirm the agency's ability to carry out tests with vehicle partners.

"The National Campaign is trying to verify the gaps in the current FAA standards that scaling eVTOLs operations can't yet meet," said AAM National Campaign lead Starr Ginn, in the NASA blog post. "We are putting these vehicles through the FAA standards for operations that currently exist. That is our measuring stick."

Helicopter test pilots playing 'surrogate' to next-gen vehicles

The NC aims to test vehicles and UAM airspace manufacturers from several companies. A second goal is to understand how cities, airports, and U.S. infrastructure in general can support the next-gen passenger transports and cargo delivery.

The Mojave, California-based Flight Research Inc. will loan the Bell OH-58C Kiowa helicopter for the test series — where Flight Research Inc. and the FAA test pilots will fly numerous maneuvers, playing as a "surrogate" UAM.

Kitty Hawk Copter
NASA's upcoming tests will also test the agency's interaction with third-party airspace providers. Source: Kitty Hawk

Final March test will evaluate 'end-to-end system'

Data collected from the three test flight series at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in California will analyze the general challenges to future vehicles the urban environment will present. The analysis involves vehicle characteristics, wind conditions, the way the agency interacts with third-party airspace providers, flight path angles, vertiports, heliports, present-day FAA tools, and navigation systems.

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The forthcoming series of flight tests should last into early next year.

"The dry run is NASA testing our flight test infrastructure which consists of range safety, instrumentation, airspace integration and data collection," said Ginn in the NASA blog post. "As the NASA subsystems mature, they will be tested at different phases of the dry run series where the final test in March will test the full end-to-end system."

NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich
The air mobility campaign has already conducted infrastructure and connectivity flight tests using a NASA TG-14 glider. Source: NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich

NASA demonstrations to analyze UAM noise footprints

The project aims to "anchor and evolve" — with the helicopter playing the role of anchor, representing present-day FAA standards required for helicopter flight. Testing with new industry models will evolve from these aging standards to achieve a flight profile eVTOL needs to safely fly.

"The industry and world will see we are not creating something new; we are evolving standards so urban air mobility can become a viable market," said FAA Research Flight Engineer Dave Webber, who is also vehicle characteristics principle investigator for this joint project.

The integrated operations of NASA and private partnerships will enable all parties to collect data from the aircraft while the vehicle performs approaches and departures in varying conditions. Additionally, these demonstrations will help communities and local governments advance their understanding of inter-entity operations via a group assessment of the noise footprint of next-gen vehicles.

Vertiports Helipads NASA
Helipads and vertiports were painted to assist in future flight testing. Source: NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich

Urban air mobility could potentially save trillions of dollars

Joby plans to make an urban air network operational in 2023. Lilium, the eVTOL manufacturer — plans to have a functioning regional network ready for its forthcoming electric vehicle when it launches in 2025.

The idea of UAM still feels too sci-fi for many to take seriously, but the accelerating pressures of urban life demand new solutions for quick travel. Roughly 65% of the world's population will live in urban areas by 2050, according to Robb Report. Additionally, studies show the U.S. will lose $1.2 trillion in GDP from sub-optimal roads and lackluster public transit. But in the sky, we don't need roads, which means vastly reducing the need for infrastructural maintenance.

Hydrogen-powered flying taxis coming to nearby windows

Included in the NASA projects are the Armstrong and Ames Research Center in California and Langley Research Center in Virginia — under the leadership of NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.

As the fourth industrial revolution takes flight, so does the next generation of urban mobility — not decades or years from now, but right in front of our eyes. Indeed, NASA's partnerships with the FAA, Lilium, and Wisk and Alaka'I Technologies will bring hydrogen-powered flying taxis to skies near our windows sooner than we think.

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