Air taxis keep crashing and igniting in testing phase
Little-noticed crashes have hit leading companies, but the industry says it’s thriving and failure is necessary
By Alan Levin/Bloomberg
A prototype air taxi suffered a software glitch, lost control and crashed into a field. Another’s computer mistakenly thought he was on the ground, cutting off power in flight and plunging him into the sidewalk. The batteries of two others caught fire.
The race to develop a new family of flying machines to transport people and goods through traffic-congested cities has attracted billions of US dollars of investment and vast promise, but some of the biggest names in the aviation had crashes during testing, a Bloomberg review of reports from 2018 showed.
They include Boeing Co and its subsidiary, Aurora Flight Sciences Corp, the Bell helicopter division of Textron Inc, billionaire Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk Corp, Joby Aviation Inc and German air taxi pioneer Lilium NV.
No one died or was injured, and advocates say the crashes are a healthy sign that the industry is pushing boundaries.
However, the new electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles use innovative technologies that have not been tested in routine service, and some safety experts say this means the road to government approval and l Public acceptance will probably not be easy. .
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is gearing up to certify a handful of new planes to carry people as early as 2024.
Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a speech last month that the agency was on track to achieve that goal, but the timing would be dictated by the safety of the new designs.
“It’s harder than people generally realize,” said John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who co-authored a paper on the challenges facing eVTOLs. “You are pushing the state of the art in multiple dimensions at the same time.”
Hansman is also an adviser to Electra.aero Inc, which is developing a hybrid electric aircraft.
One of the most publicized accidents happened on February 16 at a remote testing facility near Jolon, California. A physical component of Joby’s six-propeller craft shattered in mid-air, three people familiar with the incident told Bloomberg.
The crash may not threaten the company’s long-term plans because the plane was flying at speeds well above the 200-mph top speed it would fly in service, two of the people said.
A flight trace by the ADSBexchange.com LLC website showed it was traveling at 439 km/h before disappearing.
Joby declined to comment.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which has not completed its investigation, only said the plane suffered an unspecified component failure.
Boeing had two crashes in 2019: Aurora’s prototype air taxi on June 4 and the company’s experimental unmanned cargo plane on June 21.
Aurora was caused by an erroneous command from a computer to shut down the engines and Boeing’s was due to gusts of wind, the NTSB said.
“We have gained valuable knowledge and experience that will benefit programs across the company,” Boeing said in an emailed statement.
The company continues its development work in partnership with Kitty Hawk known as Wisk Aero LLC.
Crashes should not be viewed as the rare incidents in traditional aircraft flight testing, said Walter Desrosier, vice president of engineering and maintenance for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association trade group.
Significantly more protections are taken before test flights where pilots and engineers will be on board, Desrosier said.
“When we have the ability to test things without humans, you can do additional things because you can manage the risk,” he said.
All but one of the nine accidents examined involved remotely piloted craft.
Kitty Hawk’s Heaviside2 crashed in a California field near Tres Pinos, Calif., on Oct. 17, 2019, after a software error caused control issues, according to an NTSB report. A remote pilot attempted to land the hybrid aircraft designed to carry one person, but was unable to land in a field while moving forward and suffered significant damage, the NTSB said.
The company told investigators it was reviewing the software and also changing its procedures.
Kitty Hawk did not respond to requests for comment.
Similar failures of software or aircraft structures have occurred during the development of human-carrying craft, but they go unnoticed because they happen in a lab and not during flight, Desrosier said.
Unlike crashes, these failures are usually not publicly reported.
Accidents and incidents involving these new-age aircraft have occurred for a variety of reasons, ranging from failures of carbon fiber structures to breakdowns in computer-human interactions. They highlight some of the technology-related design challenges.
The century-old flight controls used by traditional aircraft are being replaced in some cases by computerized motors, and while some initial models would be guided by traditional pilots, the goal is to transition to robotic flight.
Instead of liquid fuels, they would be powered by lithium batteries, creating new questions about fire hazards and ensuring adequate charging.
On January 22, 2020, a fire destroyed a prototype nine-passenger electric transport aircraft from Eviation Aircraft Ltd in Prescott, Arizona.
The fire started in a battery on the ground that is not part of the plane’s main power unit, the company said in an email.
“We learned a valuable lesson from the event,” the company said in an emailed statement, adding that it had taken several steps to protect lithium batteries from overheating and fire.
Similarly, Lilium, which designs an aircraft that uses electric jet engines to take off vertically, said in an emailed statement that it had improved safety measures for its battery system after a fire on February 27, 2020. , at an airport near Munich.
The crashes haven’t stopped established companies from clamoring to invest in air taxi start-ups or order planes that are still uncertified. Parcel shipping kingpins FedEx Corp and United Parcel Service Inc have partnered with eVTOL startups, and major airlines — including American Airlines Group Inc and United Airlines Holdings Inc — have also bet on the industry.
However, a report released in May by the US Government Accountability Office on the outlook for electric air taxis indicates that one of the biggest challenges facing the industry and regulators is securing public buy-in. .
“Acceptance of large numbers of aircraft operating in close proximity to people and buildings will require a concerted effort by industry and government to demonstrate the safety of these aircraft by demonstrating safe and reliable operations,” indicates the report.
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