Building the Standards Launch-Pad for Emerging Airspace Industries

There’s a revolution happening in our skies. Aviation and spaceflight are undergoing rapid transformation as a result of emerging technologies. Cutting-edge innovations in autonomous systems and electrification herald a new golden age of safer, more affordable, and more sustainable air travel. Meanwhile, advances in commercial spaceflight are opening the possibility of orbital and sub-orbital travel to civilian passengers, whilst point-to-point flights hold the promise of extreme reductions in travel time, shrinking the world as dramatically as the invention of the steam engine in its day.

Historians might tell us, however, that the hope and excitement of revolution must be tempered with caution. To reap the enormous societal benefits of these advances, safety regulation and public acceptance must keep pace with technological innovation.

Technological Advance and Public Acceptance: Closing the Gap

Tom Gunnarson is Head of Regulatory Affairs for electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle company Wisk Aero, and membership secretary of the committee on unmanned aircraft systems (F38). With a background at the Federal Aviation Authority’s (FAA) advanced technologies branch, he is keenly aware of the wider landscape that determines the success of cutting-edge vehicles like those Wisk and others are developing.

“These new types of aircraft are very different from traditional aircraft in terms of where they go and how they operate. There’s a lot of different things all coming together at the same time. That means there’s a big challenge to work on public perception so that people can feel comfortable with something new.”

It is in this gap between technological advance and public acceptance that standards can play a crucial role, and create the conditions for emerging industries to scale and mature. The ever-increasing pace of innovation has prompted parallel changes in the way standards and regulation are developed. The committee on general aviation aircraft (F44) helped to evolve the FAA’s Part 23 regulations from prescriptive to performance-based standards, sparking interest from companies developing advanced aircraft, as Tom Gunnarson recalls, “There were several companies speaking up to say, ‘Hey, it looks like we could have these new eVTOLs covered under the same rules’.”

Strategic advisory committees have carried out rapid gap analysis and workplans, fast-tracking the modification of standards to enable air taxis and other advanced aircraft to use them as a means of compliance, despite the very high diversity of technologies and approaches.

Infrastructure for Advanced and Pilotless Aircraft

While the first air taxis may be operating commercially within two years, for advanced aircraft to truly take off, the critical next step will be pilotless aircraft. Full autonomy will be needed to make eVTOLs cost-competitive with automotive ride-share services. But pilotless aircraft will need a lot of new infrastructure in place, explains F38 chair Phil Kenul: “Infrastructure is going to be key. Where are you going to put these aircraft, what are the standards for the vertiports they’ll fly in and out of, what’s the information that needs to go from the aircraft to the vertiport for air traffic control? And how will unmanned aircraft system traffic management (UTM) interoperate with a legacy traffic management system that’s extremely complex and will need to be seamless? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

Adapting Standards Development for Fast-Moving Technologies

Coordinating work on these crucial standards, which are all moving ahead at ‘lightspeed’ is a big job in itself, but by doing so standards bodies can help to promote compatibility between systems from the outset. ASTM committees working in emerging airspace have actively encouraged overlap in committee members, and are finding new ways to work that support the rapid pace of technology development. These include rapid iteration, with a focus on publishing initial versions of standards quickly, even where technology is only at beta-testing stage, and using learning loops to inform later versions. The Detect and Avoid (DAA) standard which enables aircraft to operate beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) is now in its third version, and second versions of both UTM and remote ID standards have recently been published.

Roadmapping exercises have highlighted the existing standards which can be adapted for emerging technologies, as well as the critical gaps where new standards are needed to support industries to move from demonstration to operations. These roadmaps are driving collaboration and funding for the research needed to bridge the gaps, such as the work being done by ASSURE, the FAA’s center of excellence for UAS research. For example, ASTM has used research data provided from ASSURE to inform the development of the DAA Performance and DAA Test Methods standards with participation of ASSURE universities supporting the development of these standards.

A Strategic Approach to Spaceflight Standards

In F47, they have innovated with new approaches to get draft standards and guidelines to committee stage faster. Safety-critical software standards are likely to impact many types of emerging transport technologies, but the high degree of complexity makes it harder to progress them through traditional approaches. Andrew Nelson is Vice President – Aerospace, RS&H Inc. and F47 vice chair, where they have used a ‘tiger team’ to fast-track the writing process: “The software standard is a really fundamental and groundbreaking piece of work. There are some specific regulatory requirements that have been challenging for operators to address in commercial space. But we realized up front that we needed a small development or writing team who were deeply knowledgeable about the topic. So they will pull together this work and present a largely complete package to the subcommittee that can then be evaluated broadly.”

F47’s strategic approach has seen them work systematically on standards development in a way that is highly responsive to industry’s needs.

“The new work of the committee is now branching out into areas that are important for expansion, of the economic frontier into space to create a robust economy,” says Nelson. Key projects have been varied in nature, reflecting their user-driven ethos. They include in-space operations and servicing (‘form, fit and function’), for example to enable satellites to come together for docking and refueling. The committee is also laying the groundwork for ‘responsive launch’ – essentially the ability to launch on-demand across a global network of spaceports, through infrastructure and vehicle interoperability standards. At the other end of the scale, they have published test standards for a lunar glove, a surprisingly tricky challenge thanks to abrasive lunar dust, pressure suits and oxygen-rich environment, Nelson explains. “The Apollo lunar gloves were designed to last for about 12 hours of operation. But for commercial operations and establishing a long-term sustainable presence on the Moon, gloves will need to last much longer. And these technologies become increasingly important when we look to the next frontier, which is Moon to Mars.”

Ready for Take-Off

With many emerging airspace technologies poised for take-off, the work of ASTM’s committees will be essential to support the growth of mature industries.

For Phil Kenul the pieces of the puzzle are starting to fall into place: “With any new technology you need societal acceptance. You need people to become comfortable with the technology, for it to be well-developed and reliable, and for there to be a safety culture. We’re pretty much at the starting gates with a lot of these technologies, but in the next five to ten years, we’re going to see all that accelerate.” It promises to be a fascinating ride.