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  • Writer's pictureSimon Golstein

EASA proposes unified VTOL regulations

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the authority which governs aviation in all 27 members of the European Union, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, has proposed some fairly significant regulatory changes to prepare for the widespread adoption of urban air mobility. The 58-page document is intended to establish uniform safety standards and regulations that will enable operators to use eVTOLs in European airspace, while avoiding the repression of market development with burdensome restrictions.

In this blog, we’ll look at some of its key points.

New terms

The proposal begins by defining terms. EASA states that it has analyzed the documentation of other aviation authorities such as ICAO, SESAR and the FAA and concluded that they lacked a unified definition of urban air mobility (UAM), and indeed, that the term itself is problematic. For example - how do we define urban environment? And what of UAM activities that extend beyond urban environments?

So, EASA has decided to coin some new terms, to wit:

· Innovative aerial services (IAS) will be the blanket term for operations and services made possible by new aviation technology.

· Innovative air mobility (IAM) will be the term for the transportation of passengers and cargo by new aviation technology.

· Urban air mobility (UAM) will be the term for IAM operations that take place inside urban areas, including if only part of the flight.

The document also refines the definition of the aircraft under discussion. ICAO defines them as “powered-lift aircraft”, but EASA finds this insufficient as it doesn’t cover “all potential aircraft configurations” that could be relevant. Instead, EASA now defines eVTOLs as VTOL-capable aircraft, or VCAs.

What makes an aircraft a VCA? EASA's definition is:

“A power-driven, heavier-than-air aircraft, other than aeroplane or rotorcraft, capable of performing vertical take-off and landing by means of lift and thrust units used to provide lift during take-off and landing.”

Going into more detail, EASA identifies further characteristics (“peculiarities”) that make VCAs worthy of special attention. For example, they may have propulsion systems that differ from regular aircraft, they may use novel energy sources, such as hydrogen, they’re intended for use in urban environments, and they will typically fly at low altitudes.

The most significant difference between VCAs and traditional aircraft is that VCAs use fly-by-wire control systems as part of their design. Although there are many aircraft that use these systems, they are not built with these in mind, and in rotorcraft, such control systems are extremely rare. As a result, EASA recognizes that VCAs require “a completely different approach in terms of certification, with particular regard to the aircraft handling qualities, for defining both the requirements and the related acceptable means of compliance.”

And related to this is the subject of autonomous flight, which is the ultimate purpose of these aircraft. EASA states: “Implicitly, new flight control philosophies for the simplified control of the aircraft through progressively increasing levels of automation will typically be implemented.”

Amendments of aviation law

EASA considers drones to be aircraft, and VCAs even more so. EASA proposes amendments of existing aviation law to include these vehicles - specifically Regulation 748/2012, which governs rules for airworthiness and environmental certification of aircraft and related products, parts and applicants, as well as their organizations.

Changes and additions include:

· The addition of the phrase “control and monitoring units and control and monitoring unit components” (CMUs) to identification and certification procedures. It recognizes that CMUs are central to the safe operation of VCAs, and as such they should be subject to certification too. This certification of a CMU will be referenced in its VCA's certificate of airworthiness.

· Amending the definition of ‘helicopter’ to a craft with up to two rotors, so as to codify the differentiation of helicopters and eVTOLs.

· Defining “flight time” for VCAs to be “the total time between the moment the lift/thrust units are powered on for the purpose of taking off until the moment the aircraft finally comes to rest at the end of the flight and the lift/thrust units are powered off.”

· Defining “critical phases of flight” as “round taxiing with passengers for the purpose of flight or after landing, air taxiing, hovering, take-off, final approach, missed approach (go-around), landing and any other phase of flight as determined by the pilot-in-command”.

A comprehensive proposal

Beyond the certification and maintenance of air taxis, the proposal touches on many of the secondary factors necessary for real-world operation. For example:

· Final energy reserve

EASA defines the final energy reserve of an aircraft as the minimum fuel required to fly for 30 minutes at 1,500 feet above the destination aerodrome. This has not yet been defined for VCAs. The proposal states that the initial basis should be the energy necessary for a “go-around manoeuvre”. Going forward, this will be defined according to each VCA’s specific design and performance profile, and will be outlined in its airworthiness certification.

· Flight crew licensing

The proposal recognizes that licensing of VCA pilots is still under development, and there may be VCAs ready to begin operations before this framework is ready. Thus, it proposes a bridging solution by which only holders of commercial pilot licenses for planes and helicopters will be able to acquire a VCA-rating after appropriate training, and they will not require an additional license. The bridging solution will not allow non-pilots to train for VCA licenses as their first flying license.

· Flight rules

The proposal notes that VCAs will have a unique mission profile in that they are intended for use in urban areas. Currently, helicopters only operate in urban areas as part of special missions, such as first response. The proposal states that it’s expected that VCAs will only operate within predefined routes, while noting that this is also true of standard aviation operations today.

‘Specific’ and ‘certified’

The proposal is an extension of regulations 2019/945 and 2019/947, which comprise the current drone laws in Europe. They were published in 2019, updated in 2021, and were incomplete. The new proposal is an extension of these regulations.

We covered them in some detail in this blog, but what’s important to understand here is that unlike the FAA, EASA doesn’t differentiate between commercial and non-commercial operations, instead focusing on operation and safety. It divided drone operations into the ‘open’, ‘specific’ and ‘certified’ categories, with the latter two referring to high-risk operations like BVLOS and urban flights, and air taxis services.

The ‘open’ category was comprehensively defined in 2019/945 and 2019/947, but ‘specific’ and ‘certified’ were left very open. These are the categories discussed in the new proposal. This, along with the proposal’s treatment of the certification and maintenance of air taxis, rules for flight crew licensing and flight rules, mean that EASA has taken a significant step towards creating a real European U-space.

Indeed, Patrick Ky, Executive Director of EASA, said: “I am happy to release this opinion to the European Commission, which is once again the first proposal on this topic to be issued world-wide. With this, we will achieve a harmonised regulatory framework to ensure the safe, sustainable, and secure introduction of VTOL operations. This is the last piece of regulation required to enable the launch of VTOL and air taxi services for Innovative Air Mobility.”

To read the proposal in full, visit the EASA website here.

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