The Jetsons are zooming our way. And not the characters of the short-lived, early ’60s animated TV sitcom.
Flying cars, so to speak, will be arriving soon to a locality near you, says Mary Ashburn Pearson, a project manager for Delta Airport Consultant, which advises the county’s airport.
Pearson spoke last month to the Chesterfield County Planning Commission to call commissioners’ attention to the trending emergence of eVTOL vehicles, “which take off and land more similarly to a helicopter than to a fixed-wing aircraft.”
The term eVTOL refers to “electric takeoff and landing vehicles,” Pearson explained at the Dec. 20 commission meeting.
The eVTOL market – companies manufacturing “air taxis” and a variety of flying vehicles –appears to be booming. The Fairfax-based Vertical Flight Society has published an updated directory of eVTOL aircraft since 2016, and it currently lists 769 small-scale flying vehicles across five categories.
The presentation given to planning officials last month included a video clip of TV personality Steven Colbert highlighting the promotional video by Jetson, a Swedish company that is now producing and selling a one-seat flying vehicle called Jetson ONE, which is available to retail consumers. Referring to the company’s order records, Pearson noted that a customer in Charlottesville is scheduled to have a Jetson eVTOL delivered to them in the new year.
“So, moral of the story,” Pearson explained to the commissioners, “these are probably going to be popular and our residents are probably going to want to buy them if they can afford them.” Displaying a screen shot of the Jetson website, Pearson referred to the marketing language “where they promise their consumers that they can start and land anywhere you want, which – as a planner – gives me a lot of heartburn, and I don’t like that saying. … So, Charlottesville is going to be dealing with this in 2023 as well as you guys.”
As the production of consumer-ready flying vehicles – including drones, typically under 55 pounds – becomes more widespread, the Federal Aviation Administration has scrambled to keep up with the marketplace, the consultant says.
To get the idea of flying vehicles more into the mainstream of U.S. consumer understanding, she adds, the FAA has partnered with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to carry out a national awareness campaign on the topic of AAM – advanced air mobility. And the topic includes differentiations between the types of vehicles and their uses, as well as the terms that categorize their uses.
For example, the term “urban air mobility” refers to short flights within 200 miles – “very Jetsons-like,” Pearson notes.
Anticipating the popularity of flying vehicles to transport people and cargo, the agencies are in the process of developing “vertiport” standards, similar to heliport designs that allow for helicopters to land and take off. Likely, these initial steps will begin to build a foundation for eVTOL regulations, similar to laws that govern cars and the rules of the road.
In the state of Virginia, the Department of Aviation has launched a task force to study air-mobility issues, allowing multi-disciplinary input from lawmakers, traffic engineers, aviators and others. The aviation department also established a platform for localities to share governmental and security information about who’s acquiring and using the flying equipment.
Like the FAA, state officials have taken steps to educate Virginia residents and build awareness about the emergence of personal airborne vehicles.
“The most important thing I think is applicable to your planning department is [that] the [Department of Aviation] has come up with a model ordinance for these vertiports, so when the time comes to incorporate vertiports into your zoning, there’s some suggestions there you can take into account,” Pearson said.
For Chesterfield County planners, she added, a future with flying vehicles requires officials to be prepared by reviewing existing zoning ordinances and building codes to see where vertiports could feasibly be located. State legislators have already passed a bill, in 2020, allowing localities to curb the use of drones on city- or county-owned space, such as public parks.
“Decide where you want landings and take-offs to occur,” Pearson said.
A host of other issues will arise and require officials to craft regulations: pollution, environmental impact, noise, charging-station access, among others, according to Pearson.
After the presentation, Gib Sloan, the Bermuda District commissioner, asked: “Obviously, Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, so counties can address those things that the state has empowered us to do, to act on. Has the Commonwealth of Virginia empowered localities to have planning departments and bodies like this to start creating usable permits and zoning ordinances in the sky?”
Deputy County Attorney Rob Robinson weighed in and noted that state code is vague about “zoning-enabling statutes” other than the specifics mentioned in Pearson’s presentation. “It is my belief that our general zoning powers,” he said, “would extend, at least, to areas where these things take off, where they land. If you’re talking about being able to regulate something that’s 500 feet up in the sky, I’m not quite sure about that.”
In her closing comment, Pearson had already offered the crux of considerations certain to come before county officials.
“[Advanced air mobility] is coming and you will have AAM in your county at some point,” she said. “Benefits can be wonderful … But also it’s going to bring a lot of challenges. And technology companies, as we know, are moving a lot faster than government.” ¦