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An artist’s conception shows an urban air mobility environment, trafficked by air vehicles with a variety of missions and with or without pilots. (NASA Illustration / Lillian Gipson)

The rise of air mobility options ranging from delivery drones to air taxis and flying cars is shaping up as the biggest thing to hit aviation since the introduction of jet engines, NASA’s top official on aeronautics says.

“I happen to believe that this is a revolution coming in aviation,” Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics, told a Seattle audience this week. “But if we do not methodically practice our best practices and all the know-how in the aviation field, this could become a total disaster.”

To avoid that total disaster, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration have set up a process called the Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenges, modeled in part on the DARPA Grand Challenges that set the stage for autonomous ground vehicles more than a decade ago.

Those DARPA contests offered million-dollar prizes for self-driving cars that could negotiate the twists and turns of streets and highways. Similarly, the UAM Grand Challenges will test how well new types of air vehicles and new software platforms for air traffic management perform in urban environments. But this time, there’ll be no prizes given out.

“We’re not going to be in the business of picking winners or giving gold stars,” said NASA’s Davis Hackenberg, strategic adviser for urban air mobility.

Instead, NASA and the FAA aim to work with private-sector participants to determine the right regulatory processes and technical standards for a class of air vehicles that will short-circuit on-the-ground traffic congestion by flying passengers between urban hubs.

The agencies organized this week’s “Industry Day” activities in Seattle to explain the UAM Grand Challenges to potential participants — and to solicit feedback that would be incorporated into the detailed requirements, metrics and schedule for the challenges. “This is a not a NASA event, this is not an FAA event, this is a community event,” Shin said at Thursday’s kickoff.

The deadline for providing feedback is Nov. 16, and the first Grand Challenge is expected to take place in late 2020.

That first challenge, known as GC-1, will probably involve having teams demonstrate the airworthiness of their vehicles through on-the-ground inspections and a series of point-to-point flights on a predetermined course. Providers of air traffic management systems will also have an opportunity to show how well their software monitors airspace that’s shared by air taxis, drones and more traditional aircraft.

Honeywell Aerospace’s Randy Robertson, one of the attendees at Industry Day, said the challenge is more likely to require logistical skill than technological breakthroughs. “On the systems syde, the avionics, there’s not much new you need to invent,” said Robertson, Honeywell’s vice president for next-generation avionics at Honeywell Aerospace,

Commercial ventures — including Boeing-owned Aurora Flight Sciences, Airbus-affiliated Vahana and billionaire-backed Kitty Hawk — are already working on small-scale, electric-powered air vehicles designed for vertical takeoff and landing, also known as eVTOL aircraft.

One of the leaders in the eVTOL race is Uber, which has laid out plans for air-taxi pilot projects in Dallas, Dubai and Los Angeles in 2020.

Will the Grand Challenges be outrun by innovation, as was the case a few years ago for a $10 million gene-sequencing competition? Probably not. Shin hinted that Uber’s plan for its Elevate air service will mesh quite well with the Grand Challenges.

“It’s really elevated, pun intended, the awareness and importance and also the sheer positive energy across the whole ecosystem,” he said. “They have done a better job than anybody else in actually pulling positive energy together. I don’t want to say anything more than that, but we’re in good discussions with Uber. The way we are thinking is, there’s no overlap or duplication, and we’ll make it that way.”

If the Grand Challenges work out the way NASA and the FAA hope they will, the outcomes should set the stage for certifying next-generation eVTOL aircraft and phasing in traffic management systems suited for the next aviation revolution in the early 2020s — avoiding the kinds of policy snags that have held up the commercial drone industry.

Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office, said he’s looking forward to the age of autonomous air taxis.

“When they’re not going to let me drive anymore, I can still hop into something to run around town,” Lawrence said. “I hope it’s all there by the time I hit that age.”

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