ASTM, FAA and NFPA have each recently published vertiport standards to support the eVTOL revolution
By Rex Alexander, VFS Infrastructure Advisor
After a substantial amount of time and effort on the part of numerous individuals (many of whom are volunteers), along with various organizations and numerous regulatory representatives, two vertiport standards have now been published to support planning for electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for advanced air mobility (AAM) operations. That said, these new standards should be considered as a good starting point and not a final product. As eVTOL aircraft and AAM plans mature, these new standards are expected to be modified and improved over time.
One of the challenges in developing any new standard for a rapidly evolving technology such as AAM is in striking a balance between safety, practicality and efficiency. Given that there are no detailed aircraft performance data published for the many eVTOL designs currently under development, a very pragmatic approach was therefore warranted by the standards development groups. This involves a more conservative methodology than many would like — which leans more towards a prescriptive approach. As aircraft performance data is developed, it is expected that these standards will change.
On Aug. 22, 2022, ASTM International announced that their vertiport standard had been published, making theirs the first to successfully cross the finish line. The new F3423 standard was developed over a five-year period by numerous volunteers of the F38 Committee for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. This standard is intended to provide guidance for ground infrastructure for both crewed and uncrewed eVTOL aircraft. As a participant who helped to lead this effort, I would like to acknowledge the exceptional support and participation by the VFS and its members in accomplishing this challenging task.
The second standard, which was published by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Sept. 26, 2022, is the FAA Vertiport Engineering Brief No. 105. While a product of the FAA, there was a significant amount of time and effort devoted to the development of this standard by members of VFS, the Helicopter Association International (HAI) and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA). This effort culminated in a day-long industry meeting held March 7, 2022, at HAI’s annual conference Heli-Expo in Dallas, Texas. Over 100 industry volunteer subject matter experts took part in reviewing the FAA’s engineering brief line-byline, producing over 100 comments and recommendations to the FAA Airports organization.
The FAA vertiport engineering brief, however, is somewhat of a stop-gap measure until the agency has had time to develop and publish a functional, performance-based vertiport advisory circular (AC). The company on contract with the FAA leading this project is Woolpert, Inc., an architectural and engineering firm based in Dayton, Ohio, with significant experience in aviation infrastructure development (Woolpert is a VFS corporate member and frequent participant in VFS meetings). Having been afforded the privilege to work with this group on this project, I can say from personal experience that it is in very good hands.
The actual FAA vertiport AC is expected to be published in late 2024 or early 2025. Until then, the current engineering brief will provide guidance and will likely be updated, possibly as early next summer. Once the AC is published, the engineering brief will no longer be in effect.
While there are some differences between these two standards, one obvious benefit of having members of VFS, HAI and GAMA involved in the FAA’s effort is that much of the terminology and guidance found in the FAA standard has been harmonized with the ASTM International standard. This harmonization allows for a much simpler and coherent path towards regulatory development at the US federal, state and local level. This in turn, equates to a much better infrastructure business model being achievable, which can more easily be reproduced in various locations across the US, saving significant money, time and effort.
One important difference of note that ASTM International incorporated into its standard — which the FAA did not — was uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) weighing 55 lb (25 kg) or more. This was achieved by designing a standard that was scalable to the dimensions of these smaller aircraft. This inclusion was designed to allow proponents looking to conduct cargo/ delivery operations with smaller uncrewed aircraft the ability to use the ASTM International standard in the development of “droneports.” The FAA engineering brief states that it “is written for aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 12,500 lbs. (5,670 kg) or less” but does not mention UAS aircraft.
Another important standard in the process of addressing vertiport infrastructure is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 418 Standard for Heliports. As the chair of the technical committee responsible for the development of this standard, I have been pleased to support getting the first draft published for public comment in early October — it will remain open for comments until Jan. 5, 2023. This draft includes new language that addresses charging systems, battery storage, electrical storage systems (ESS), hydrogen storage and dispensing, and numerous other items. It too has been carefully harmonized with the ASTM and FAA standards. Access to this draft standard can be found on the NFPA website at www.nfpa.org. All comments are welcome.
A rather unique standard that is also in its final stages of development that the author has also been working on — and which will now include criteria for heliports and vertiports — is the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) Outdoor Lighting for Airport Environments (RP-37-15). This standard provides guidance for areas surrounding a landing facility such as loading and unloading zones, wash racks, refueling sites, and maintenance areas.
All in all, some very exciting progress to report in the development of AAM and eVTOL infrastructure standards.
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