In January 2021, we discussed some of the major safety and certification challenges faced by eVTOL manufacturers. Put simply, eVTOL technology and its flight environments are different enough from traditional aircraft that existing FAA and EASA standards didn’t apply. As such, there have been some speedy assessments in the last few years.
Two years later, the landscape is looking quite different. Below, we’ll look at these developments to understand where we’re at and whether eVTOLs will pass the test.
According to the aviation safety training company, Afuzion, there is some crossover with existing aviation technology. eVTOL designs are near exact copies of existing fixed- and rotary-wing systems, so aspects such as navigation and communications are also similar.
However, as it claims, flight control, battery technology, and safety aspects all require assessment and certification. It cites examples including de-icing technology, which will be critical for eVTOLs flying in cold environments. But on the other end of the scale, battery tech poses a fire risk, so manufacturers need to conduct more tests before trying for certification.
This isn’t to say that progress hasn’t been made in the last few years. In November 2022, the FAA released its airworthiness criteria proposal for Joby Aviation. As a fairly novel document, it includes specific definitions for the aircraft itself and its systems, along with suggestions for dealing with the loss of power and other safety concerns.
One major area of the proposal is the transitional nature of eVTOLs. The report claims that no standards existed for aircraft that could transition between vertical and horizontal flight in this way. However, it has lifted airworthiness criteria from standards for both rotorcraft and engines and propellers as the basis of its new standards.
Similarly, in the last few months, the FAA has released and revised numerous other standards. For example, in December 2022, it released airworthiness criteria for Archer Aviation and recently issued a blueprint for eVTOL operation in urban environments.
We rounded up some of the major players in the eVTOL industry in April 2021 to see what stage they were at. Considering how much has changed in the last two years, it’ll be worth revisiting some of them to see how they’re doing with their certifications.
As of December 2022, Volocopter was awaiting Type Certification from the EASA. It’s also waiting for its Operating License and airworthiness certification. Volocopter received its Production Organisation Approval in July 2021, meaning its aircraft must be fit for purpose once they obtain type certification.
In March 2022, Lilium announced it was extending its type certification to 2025 to accommodate design changes. One major reason for this is delays in global supply chains, which means the company is further behind on its testing schedule than it would like to be.
Finally, Vertical Aerospace received Design Organisation Approval (DOA) from the UK’s CAA in March 2023. This essentially means it’s a few steps behind Lilium and Volocopter, as DOA is needed to obtain type certification. Interestingly, the CAA adopted the EASA’s VTOL compliance standards the month before this announcement, meaning British eVTOLs will have to meet the same standards as those developed in Europe.
Based on recent progress, is there anything that could hinder eVTOLs’ certification processes in the next few years? In theory, yes, but one of the advantages of having the standards written as you develop your product is that you can more easily conform to them. However, developing existing standards to fit eVTOLs is a complex process, and many of the most important adjustments are yet to come.