Julia has recently joined our Transportation team here at Reed Smith, having previously been an attorney and policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Transportation and developing strategy and policy with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (‘US Regulator’) – including in relation to emerging transportation and advanced air mobility (‘AAM’).

The regulatory framework being built to facilitate AAM around the world can seem intimidating, and is changing with a speed and agility that those working in more established modes of transport may not expect. Julia shares some helpful thoughts on this, and we will be sharing more detailed insights soon – so watch this space!

1.AS: The US regulatory landscape in which AAM assets will have to operate is already vast and complex, and seems to be evolving on a weekly basis alongside the technology and the industry’s expectations. To break this down into something more approachable as a starting point, what would you say are the key ‘mission critical’ points of regulation or touchpoints for those developing AAM assets and infrastructure, and those looking to finance these assets?

JN: The growth of the AAM industry and its supporting infrastructure will depend in large part on government regulations that permit advanced air operations.  This applies to both manned operations and unmanned operations.  In the unmanned context, “advanced operations” include operations that are beyond the visual line of sight of the drone pilot, and operations over people.

Worldwide, governments are at very different stages in term of the extent to which they permit advanced (or any) AAM operations. In the U.S., for example, there is already a commercial market that is developing quickly.  Currently, advanced operations in the U.S. are permissible using waivers and exemptions from existing rules established by the US Regulator. 

Eventually, advanced operations will occur on a more regular basis with the establishment of new rules.  In the U.S., our regulatory body is gathering data from the waiver/exemption process as it evaluates a safety-first approach to new regulatory pathways for the AAM industry.  Here at Reed Smith, we are closely monitoring the evolution of government AAM frameworks to serve on a consultative basis for AAM and its associated industries.

2.AS: Focus on the development of vertiports, charging infrastructure, and other support functions is increasing. Vertiport design in particular is hitting the trade headlines, with the recent release of Engineering Brief #105: Vertiport Design by the US Regulator hot on the heels of EASA’s design specs earlier this year, and other countries like Australia making draft design guidelines available for comment. What role does a regulator (like the US Regulator or the U.S. Department of Transportation) play in preparing this briefing material, and how will they be involved in implementing and monitoring the design requirements?

JN: Information sharing, including briefing material and guidance documents, is a critical component of enabling AAM activities and their supporting infrastructure.  The U.S. Regulator has embraced this concept, as demonstrated with its Vertiport Engineering Brief #105 and planned Advisory Circular focused on performance-based vertiport design.  Transparency is part of the U.S. Regulator’s deliberative “crawl, walk, run” approach to regulating AAM and its supporting infrastructure. This allows the US to take incremental steps forward while gathering data along the way to support more advanced concepts.

As applied in the vertiport context, briefing materials released by the US Regulator and EASA provide the industry with valuable interim guidance while more comprehensive vertiport design information is developed.  The benefit of this interim guidance is that it provides developers with insight into acceptable levels of safety, performance and operation from the regulator’s point of view.  Ideally, this will support a dialogue between industry and regulators, whereby industry can support regulators’ research by providing data to help fill information gaps.  I hope you will see this as a common thread in my responses here: the criticality of information-sharing – among industry, regulators, state/local governments, and others – to support AAM progress.    

3.AS: There are already so many pieces in this US regulatory jigsaw puzzle, but can you identify any key missing pieces that need to be built or prioritised from here as the industry works towards commercial operations?

JN: The US Regulator is making significant progress as it relates to large-scale commercial AAM operations.  As to “missing pieces,” I would instead characterize certain essential areas as “actively under development” by our regulator.  Certain advanced operations, discussed above, are certainly one such essential area.  Another essential area is the integration of AAM operations into the existing national airspace, especially as it relates to air traffic management.

In the US, when we contemplate “air traffic management systems”, we often think initially about our existing system that serves traditional, piloted aircraft using voice communication between an air traffic controller and pilot.  How does an AAM aircraft fit into this existing system of air traffic management?  In the US, integration will be accomplished in part through “unmanned traffic management” (‘UTM’).  The US Regulator’s UTM concept envisions a framework that is complimentary, but distinct, from the existing air traffic management system.  UTM will allow for coordination among the US Regulator, AAM operators, and others through highly automated communication systems, as opposed to voice communications between air traffic controllers and pilots.

These highly automated UTM systems will also depend on the use of radiofrequency, a scarce resource, for communication.  As we move towards ubiquitous AAM use, we will also have to ensure collaboration with other sectors operating in the same or nearby radiofrequency bands. 

4.AS: We’ve seen some aviation authorities cooperating across jurisdictions to align their certification standards and operating guidelines (see for example our commentary on the use of the EASA SC-VTOL standard by the UK CAA here). How important is achieving regulatory harmonisation for the AAM industry, and how is this being approached by the US Regulator?

JN: Harmonization begins with collaboration. This concept is an especially interesting question for the US Regulator, since collaboration is required both within the continental US (among our individual states), and between the US and our international partners.

Domestically, the US Regulator is actively engaging with state/local/tribal governments and industry using tools such as dedicated working groups or councils.  These councils employ the expertise of a variety of stakeholders to identify regulatory gaps and strategies to bridge these gaps with harmonization in mind. 

From the global perspective, harmonization also begins with information sharing.  This helps the efficient development of regulations, and demonstrates US commitment to transparency in the process.  To that end, the US Regulator collaborates on a recurring basis with international regulatory partners on issues like certification requirements for AAM. The use of existing tools such as bilateral agreements can help support this collaborative process. 

5.AS: You’ve recently joined us here at Reed Smith. What can this global platform offer in terms of progressing focus on transportation strategy?

JN: My transition to Reed Smith is an opportunity for me to continue assisting new entrants in aviation.  A common theme in my responses above is collaboration between government and industry.  I see my new role at Reed Smith as a step in furtherance of this collaboration.  At Reed Smith, I have the opportunity to inform client decision-making using my unique background in US government, both at the state and federal level.

I also look forward to using my background to help develop and shape Reed Smith’s transportation industry strategy. My addition to the firm will expand the scope of what we can offer to our clients in terms of market knowledge and cutting edge commercial advice.  It is great to be involved in a firm with such a forward-leaning approach to our transportation industry knowledge base.  I consider myself very fortunate to be in a position to add value in a field I am truly passionate about – aviation and its emerging entrants.

Thanks very much Julia!