The Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) has published the President’s Briefing paper, a novel and forward-thinking insight into hypothetical electric vertical take off and landing (eVTOL) safety scenarios, using ‘pre-mortem’ accident analysis to highlight areas for further action.

FINN spoke to RAeS President Kerissa Khan, to delve into the importance of “the increased need for industry-led collaboration, real-time information sharing, modern scenario-based training [and] safety culture built throughout industry” in this rapidly evolving area.

“Urgent need for a global safety-focused body”

Recognising the need to consider the operating ecosystem as a whole, “the paper highlights the urgent need for a global safety-focused body to corral and lead the safety conversation across all elements and functions,” says Khan, conceding that “the eVTOL Safety Leadership Group, facilitated by the UK Civil Aviation Authority and the HeliOffshore association are good models to adopt and build on”.

By examining and analysing three fictitious “plausible and realistic accident scenarios,” the RaeS study aims to introduce a “predictive safety management approach that includes ‘pre-mortem’ analysis to forsee and mitigate potential risks,” explains Khan. Highlighting the importance of “industry-led collaboration and continuous improvement in safety practices,” she concludes that “as aviation evolves with innovations in electrification, digitalisation and automation,” safety must remain “the top priority”.

With today’s aviation safety levels achieved through “incremental learnings and improvements over many decades,” a “non-punitive accident investigative culture” is integral to embedding preventative lessons, explains the study. As such, RaeS President Khan’s team of multidisciplinary global experts convened to analyse three accident scenarios “informed by examples of past accidents but updated to portray how they could occur with eVTOLS in the future, specifically within a rapidly evolving aviation ecosystem introducing multiple new layers of complexity to the current system”.

Pre-emptive lessons from fictitious scenarios

The first scenario proposes an eVTOL experiencing a battery issue while undertaking emergency medical air rescue services in the South Asian region, necessitating an emergency landing amid impending thermal runaway. Highlighting the importance of preventative maintenance, the study concludes that simulator training in such situations would be beneficial, as would the in-flight monitoring of battery systems and the sharing of relevant firefighting standards for vertiports and airfields. “The emerging eVTOL sector will need to dive deeper into considering these novel and specific issues such as alternative landing site availability and provision of off-vertiport landing sites for emergencies,” elaborates Khan. “Furthermore, logistical plans and H&SE protocols for emergencies such as battery fires will need to be considered in detail for vertiports and alternative landing sites”.

Turning to the popular predicted commuter use scenario, a second situation contemplates the complexities of diverting an eVTOL and resulting challenges; concluding that “while the simplicity of operation may provide unique safety advantages, there will be increased importance on understanding the state of charge and the availability of suitable landing locations, especially in high-density environments”. Crucially, with little information currently available on what the low-level IFR environment will entail, training for both aircrew and controllers – as well as the expanded level of aeronautical information available to support planned and alternative landing sites – will be of critical importance.

The final situation considers a collision in the “congested and intricate air traffic environment” surrounding a South American megacity, highlighting the human factors at play when a fatigued pilot is pressured to push on. The ensuing landing on a football field (clipping ground infrastructure) in the process results in ‘significant’ reputational impact on the eVTOL’s operator, with the global media subsequently “highly critical of the operation and its safety culture”.

Time-sensitive safety opportunity

Noting that there is already “substantial activity taking place in different parts of the world making considerable progress” towards the safe introduction of eVTOLs, “the collaboration that exists is not all-encompassing and is, at times, not widely recognised or publicised,” highlights the study. “The earlier actors in the aviation ecosystem can prepare, the better,” explains Khan, adding that “this is an urgent need but also a time-sensitive opportunity for operators, regulators, OEMs, infrastructure and service providers to collaboratively build in safety from now”.

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