FAA’s head of aircraft certification closes regulatory gaps

As the aviation industry enters a new “golden age” rich in innovation, regulators are struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of technological advancements. In the absence of a new regulatory framework to govern new technologies designed for advanced air mobility (AAM), such as eVTOL air taxis, the United States Federal Aviation Administration finds it necessary to make some changes to its certification processes. . This was stated by the executive director of the agency’s aircraft certification service, Lirio Liu, during the opening day of the Revolution Aero conference in San Francisco on September 12.

To accommodate the booming AAM industry in the meantime, the agency needs to be flexible in applying existing regulations for conventional aircraft to new technologies, according to Liu. “This new golden age of aviation is truly incredible, but it clearly presents challenges for the FAA,” she said. “Our current regulations are designed over the years for traditional airplanes and helicopters and their operations, and we don’t just see airplanes and helicopters and the same operations.”

Liu’s keynote address to Revolution Aero delegates covering a wide range of AAM stakeholders came four months after the FAA destabilized the fledgling industry by suggesting it felt the need to make changes fundamental to how new aircraft are certified. It has been reported that the regulator intends to move to a process in which “powered lift” eVTOL designs will be certified as a “special class” under its 21.17(b) regulations, rather than under 14 CFR Part 23 rules used for most small fixed-wing aircraft. Liu, an FAA veteran, was appointed to her current position in May around the time of the agency’s apparent change in approach.

The agency then sought to downplay the scale and pace of any changes to previously understood regulatory processes. But while eVTOL aircraft developers haven’t openly pushed back against possible changes, the Vertical Flight Society complained at the time of a “lack of clarity and consistency” from the FAA. Liu did not specifically address the issue of Rules 21.17(b) in his presentation.

In addition to electric planes and eVTOL air taxis, the FAA is now also faced with the certification of new flight technologies, such as artificial intelligence for unmanned aircraft, electric and hydrogen propulsion systems, supersonic aircraft and hypersonic and sustainable aviation fuels. The advent of these new technologies has exposed some gaps in the FAA’s regulatory framework, but this has not prevented the agency from providing the approval needed to bring such innovations to market, although the certification process may take time.

“Amidst all of this innovation, the FAA has a proven track record of certifying and safely integrating new designs and safety-enhancing technologies into the national airspace system,” Liu said. , citing examples such as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), autopilot. technologies and the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system.

“Despite the regulatory gaps…our ongoing certification work is possible because we can leverage our current regulatory framework,” Liu said. “We have flexibility in this framework. We don’t always use them, but we are getting better and better. These frameworks will allow us to have technical policy specialists to develop project-specific regulatory requirements tailored to the unique aspects and new designs we see. These flexibilities can take the form of special conditions or unique airworthiness criteria that we call a special class. »

Liu explained that when integrating new technologies and designs, the FAA takes a risk-based incremental approach, also known as an operations-based approach, to authorize operations using existing regulations and fly new planes earlier. “Once we have the aircraft in the air, we are able to leverage the lessons learned from those operations that we had approved to help us start refining that future policy,” she said. “In doing so, we’ve been able to better focus our regulatory focus while ensuring that innovation drives the industry forward.”

An example of the FAA’s operations-focused approach is how the agency has enabled drone flights through its Part 107 rules that cover small UAS. “We authorized certain operations [and] made the exemptions, so we learned the lessons learned.

“While it can sometimes be difficult for a safety-focused regulator like the FAA to keep pace with private sector innovators, I am pleased to say that the FAA is committed to ensuring that we have a solid, nimble certification system, as well as a solid organization capable of accommodating new and innovative design ideas,” Liu said.

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