NASA is testing a brand new prototype air taxi
NASA is commonly viewed as America’s space agency, but its name also highlights another area of research. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is also the United States’ civil research organization for the aerospace industry. In this role, it has been instrumental in developing new technologies ranging from rocket engines to aircraft control systems. Part of this role is running the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) campaign to test autonomous drone technology. The latest milestone in this campaign was the testing of an electric vertical take-off and landing helicopter (eVTOL), which will later be used as an air taxi.
The tests, which run through September 10, use a yet-to-be-named eVTOL vehicle from a company called Joby, which has been developing the technology with NASA for over 10 years. The aircraft, which looks like a large version of a 6-rotor drone, will conduct flight tests at Joby’s Electric Flight Base near Big Sur, California.
Video of Joby’s eVTOL air taxi.
Credit – Joby Aviation YouTube Channel
This is the first round of testing with this new type of aircraft. NASA has a rigorous test plan in place that includes collecting data on vehicle movement, noise, and communication during various forms of flight. In order to collect some of the data, the researchers had to develop a kind of mobile acoustic center that could track the aircraft with 50 different microphones and collect data about the noise it caused.
Noise is an important factor in the introduction of autonomous VTOL flight – people have to accept it. Nobody would be happy if delivery drones took off in their backyard if they made the same noise on a jet engine. But public acceptance isn’t the only factor influencing the tests.
Artistic conception of various AAM technologies.
Credit – NASA
Another is regulations. While NASA is not directly responsible for regulating autonomous flight, it is a key partner to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Some tech activists have raised concerns that the FAA is digging its heels in dealing with a rapidly evolving industry and potentially hindering the development of American companies as competitors in better regulatory systems that are literally flying past them.
NASA’s AAM efforts will influence the FAA’s decision-making process as it seeks to walk the fine line between proper regulation and enabling technology development. The next step in this effort will be a series of tests known as NC-1. These tests, slated for 2022, will track more realistic flight patterns and scenarios than those attempted in Big Sur in the coming weeks.
Another technology sponsored by AAM – Alaka’i Technologies eVTOL vehicle.
Credit Leading Technologies
Ideally, the combined efforts of the US government’s aerospace research and regulatory agencies will result in a dynamic, disruptive industry that can change the lives of its citizens for the better. With luck, a result of the vibrant, disruptive industry for over a century could be the staple of science fiction novels – truly safe, affordable, flying cars.
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Joby’s eVTOL draft is being tested near Big Sur.
Credit – Joby Aviation