By: Barbara E. Lichman, Ph.D., J.D.

The development of Vertical Take-Off and Landing Vehicles (“VTOL”) looks like the wave of the future, especially where highway traffic is becoming an increasing impediment to a constructive workday. All is not rosy, however, where VTOL must share the air with conventional aircraft and the ground with densely populated urban areas.

The most advanced VTOL to date is a U.S. based technology anticipated to become available for commercial use in 2023. The aircraft is configured to carry four passengers and a pilot (for emergencies, as the aircraft is powered by electricity and designed to fly autonomously); will have a range of about 60 miles; and is expected to be able to take-off and land up to 1,000 times per hour at massive skyports, located on plots of land as small as one acre located throughout the cities served.

Another form of hybrid VTOL currently being developed by a Chinese firm and a Slovakia–based company is a flying car designed to take-off from a runway like a plane, but with the capability of converting into a surface vehicle with retractable wheels and wings.

Finally, there is a hybrid/helicopter/conventional aircraft, the distinguishing characteristic of which is technology aimed at addressing one of the primary issues surrounding the operation of aircraft – noise. To do this, speed of the main rotor will be redirected while flying, apparently without jeopardizing the integrity of the flight process. While numerous other high-end car companies are attempting to break into the market, most were too late to the game, starting the development process in 2018-19.

There are, however, numerous regulatory, as well as developmental hurdles to overcome.

First is the federal regulatory question of which Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) certification will be appropriate, 14 CFR Part 135, applicable to conventional commuter aircraft with less than 30 seats, or 14 CFR Part 29.1(f), applicable to rotorcraft with maximum weight of less than 200,000 pounds and nine or fewer seats. Second is the question of the way in which VTOLs, which will be used at least partially for transportation from airports to downtown business districts in traffic-impacted communities will be integrated into the operations of conventional aircraft in the airport environment. Third, but not least important, is the issue of noise, which, while as yet undetermined, may be demonstrable, especially in the case of hybrid gasoline/electric vehicles. Fourth are local land use restrictions on the location of the variety of landing areas that will be necessary and the local opposition that may arise.

In the final analysis, the future of VTOLs will depend not only on the technological acumen of their developers, but also the speed with which governmental entities can catch up with regulations designed to address those and other thorny issues. Stay tuned for the interesting outcome.

Source: Aviation & Airport Development Law News