The Deseret UAS study has a broad overview of the heavy c-drone and urban air mobility testing market in the US, in particular the regulatory aspect. Image: Deseret UAS

Deseret UAS publishes study of US flight testing market for heavy c-drones and air taxis

Policy • regulations • airspace

Deseret Unmanned Aerial Systems, a nonprofit public-private partnership in the US state of Utah, has published a study of the American flight testing market for heavy c-drones over 55lb (25kg) and urban air mobility (UAM) eVTOL (Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing) aircraft. The 40-page document, available upon registration at Deseret’s website, has two stated goals: to assist the nascent commercial UAM industry in flight testing new technologies, and to encourage lawmakers to develop the regulatory environment to accompany the industry’s growth.

A number of key personnel at test sites, manufacturers, and consultants familiar with the testing environments and industry needs were interviewed. A bibliography lists the literature which was reviewed, but cautions that few academic publications were related to commercial UAM flight testing. Unsurprisingly, the study identifies Deseret UAS as well-positioned for UAM testing.

The report asserts that the seven existing Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) c-drone test sites in the US cannot meet the demand for commercial UAM flight testing, having been designed for smaller c-drones, sometimes called sUAS (small Unmanned Aerial System).

The following areas of inquiry were assessed:

  • Volume of demand among major customer segments (platform or aircraft, sensor, software, radar)
  • Location of current testing — US and elsewhere
  • Pricing for flight testing services
  • Staffing requirements for test programs
  • Facilities’ attributes demanded by the market
  • Time factors

In the white paper, an in-depth summary of the FAA’s work over the past six years paints the regulatory picture while a graphic explains in detail the FAA’s 2019 c-drone/UAM strategy. The FAA is working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM or U-space), the integration of unmanned craft into the National Airspace System (NAS).

Although focused on the US market, the study mentions the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) initiatives and sources some information from elsewhere around the world. The European Commission (executive branch of the EU) and EASA are trying to finalize rules for a c-drone ecosystem this year. The Deseret study notes the existence of advanced c-drone/UAM testing sites outside the US, but concludes that for US firms considering these sites, cost will be a major factor and the data captured will likely carry less weight with FAA regulators than US-based testing data.

A breakdown of commercial UAM customers into platform (airframe) manufacturers, sensor manufacturers, software developers, and radar systems suppliers noted that some recent testing projects have integrated several different types of customer, orchestrated by the aircraft manufacturer. The study also indicated that although there is widespread eVTOL testing underway, details were difficult to obtain as nearly all participants are subject to strict non-disclosure agreements (NDA). The authors found that flight test periods have lengthened in the past three years from 2 or 3 days over a week to two weeks with numerous flights, sometimes twice per day.

The study found that for commercial UAM customers seeking to evaluate and select a test site (FAA or other), information available through test sites’ Internet presence is widely inconsistent and marketing outreach is limited.

Test sites and customers agree there are disparities among the customer base concerning their familiarity with regulations, aeronautical expertise and experience, available staffing and financial resources. A cost/benefit analysis is in the study, which notes no customer was willing to disclose what they pay for testing programs.

The report notes:

Finding pathways to long-term sustainability is expected to continue to be a challenge for flight test sites. A combination of public support and private investment will be required. […]
The UAS and UAM industries will need to progress to certification of this new technology along with the trends, needs, and standards of the emerging industry.

Common shortcomings of testing sites were enumerated, for the most part related to the predominant focus on small c-drone and UTM research instead of heavy c-drone/UAM testing.

The c-drone (large and small) and UAM industries are developing quickly, with consulting firms predicting huge and accelerating market growth over the next twenty years. In January, the FAA announced several initiatives. This month, following the suspension of drone projects work by the FAA during the US government shutdown, the agency opened a comment period on expanded rules for c-drone flights at night and over people, while NASA announced urban UTM tests in Reno, Nevada and Corpus Christi, Texas will take place later this year.

The Deseret UAS study, announced during a webinar on February 20 organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), is available on the Deseret website (registration required for download).