A wing and a prayer


Fascination with the new. Who can resist? Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) provides just that. Often visualised in Science Fiction, plans for flying cars, taxies and autonomous machines buzzing around our heads are as popular as ever. A long-held dream of taking the imagination and making it real is the business of a lot of new entrants in aviation. The proliferation of projects is astonishing. Even with all the hype aside, there’s a strong chance that some organisations will suceeed in changing our skies forever.

This is great. It’s a way of decarbonising but continuing to fly. It opens new ways of undertaking vital tasks, like getting drugs and vaccinees to remote regions of the world. Emergency services can benifit in getting people from A to B faster and less expensivly. It may help get internal combustion engines off our congested roads in major cities. Air quailty may then improve for densly populated areas.

Nothing is for free. The shear complexity of the problems that need to be solved are taxing some smart people all over the globe. Not only that but the accommodation of aviation’s hundred-year legacy must be factored in too. That’s one reason why research and technical programmes are swallowing up the funds with a voracious appetite. Academics, consultants, and engineers are tapping into the pool of funds that Governments are making available.

Aviation has a pitfall that in that it is very unforgiving when errors and failures occur. It’s why the refrain that fits into every safety advocate’s lexicon is – safety is our number one priority. I will not argue as to how sincere those words are spoken. In the vast majority of cases, people mean what they say.

The awareness that in-service aircraft accidents can sink businesses is not lost on most protagonists. Health and Safety practitioners often say: “If you think safety is too expensive, try an accident”.

This note is more about the gaps that are evidence. Reading several publications on advanced air mobility safety and operations, I’m struck by the vagueness and wooliness of the material available. Or at least that’s how the material often starts. Then there’s a rush into infinitesimal detail to crack problems that seem more tangible. There are two problem spaces. There’s the part where uncertainty prevails. Then there’s the part where the nicely bounded nutty, gritty technical problems exist.

There are often far more questions than answers. Documents that proport to have answers are littered with questions. I’m reminded of the HHGTTG[1]. Talking about the invention of the wheel and a group considering what to do with it: “Well, if you’re so smart – what colour should it be?”

Asking the right questions is a must but there’s a lack of clarity too. Before going into painstaking detail on a set of scenarios a sound report should states its underlying assumptions first. It’s not a good idea to bypass the fundamentals. For AAM to go beyond a novelty, real world difficulties need to be faced head on. Context matters. Sharing the airspace with existing users must be considered[2]. Safety assessment must take account of interactions with General Aviation, ballons, recreational activities, aerial work, emergency services and military operations[3].

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider how accident investigation will be conducted, even at this early stage. No doubt lots of data will flow from AAM but will it be what’s needed when things go wrong?

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03v379k

[2] UK CAA CAP2272, October 2021

[3] https://www.mitre.org/sites/default/files/publications/pr-19-00667-9-urban-air-mobility-airspace-integration.pdf

Author: johnwvincent

Our man in Southern England

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