AeroX aims to develop Advanced Air Mobility system in North Carolina
By DRONELIFE Features Editor Jim Magill
Advances in electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle technology coupled with the development of new regulations regarding advanced air mobility (AAM) systems will likely pave the way for a new generation of vertiports to spring up around the country within the next five to 10 years, the president of nonprofit AeroX said in an interview.
However, Basil Yap predicts that before developers begin building greenfield facilities specially designed to accommodate eVTOL aircraft, more traditional airports initially will serve as the hubs for AAM growth.
“I don’t think it will be vertiports first,” he said “It’s much easier to incorporate aircraft into an existing system that’s set up to take aircraft.”
For more than a decade, Yap has been closely involved in the growth of the unmanned aerial vehicle industry in North Carolina, the birthplace of powered aviation. More recently, through AeroX, he has been instrumental in promoting the growth of AAM systems, initially designed to transport cargo and eventually to carry humans.
Beginning in 2022, with a $5 million grant from the state of North Carolina, AeroX has worked to attract and grow the operations of drones and eVTOL vehicles across the state.
“We’ve been looking at everything from the use of UAS and drones for a variety of different use cases like health care, public safety, infrastructure inspection — especially in the energy industry — and then also looking at the impact of these new vehicles, whether they’re electric or hybrid, traditional aircraft, conventional, or short takeoff or landing, and then even vertical takeoff and landing aircraft,” he said.
The Winston-Salem-based nonprofit venture is currently in the process of building a UAS traffic management system (UTM), a ground-based surveillance system, in the so-called Triad, a 1,000-square-mile region incorporating the cities of Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point. The systems’ sensors will be able to detect both cooperative aircraft – those that are broadcasting where they’re flying — and non-cooperative aircraft that are flying but not broadcasting their location, Yap said.
“In Class G airspace, you don’t have to be talking to air traffic control. You don’t have to be broadcasting your location. You literally just need to be looking outside of your aircraft to make sure you don’t run into other aircraft. So those are the toughest operators to be able to track,” he said.
In January 2023, AeroX announced it was conducting a statewide weather study in order to identify optimal connection points that can provide weather data to companies and communities seeking to expand AAM services in their regions.
“We have a pretty diverse climate here, everything from the coast, where the Wright Brothers came to be the first to have powered flight at Kitty Hawk, all the way to the mountains that border Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia,” Yap said.
“Those mountainous terrains offer a different type of flying environment as well. So, we looked at all of those impacts and in that study, we’re excited about sharing that information and helping think about what the next steps are.”
Yap said AeroX has also worked with the North Carolina state legislature in the establishment of an Advanced Air Mobility Caucus, educating interested lawmakers on the challenges of establishing AAM systems in the state.
Training the next generation
In an effort to help train the next generation of drone designers, operators and business owners, AeroX has launched a series of Workforce Development initiatives. One of the largest such programs involves a partnership with Elizabeth City State University.
“Students who want to take lessons to become a pilot now take those classes online, and they can do their flight training in other locations outside of Elizabeth City State, including in places like Winston-Salem,” Yap said
At the community college level, AeroX helps develop the curriculum for UAS and aviation certificate or degree programs. The nonprofit group also works with students who earn a two-year aviation-related degree or who complete the requirements to earn an airframe and powerplant mechanic (A&P) license, connecting them with companies offering jobs in those fields.
Another way in which AeroX works with community colleges is through a program that offer non-degree instruction for public service personnel – such as police and firefighters — to train them to become drone pilots.
In order to interest younger students in UAS and aviation careers, AeroX works with the Career Center High School, a part of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system. Students from throughout the county can take career-training classes in their chosen field at the Career Center.
“We set up a drone-focused program where students will get their Part 107 license while they’re in high school,” Yap said. “We also teach them the skills on how to conduct missions and create a product that can be useful, so it can be sold or can benefit a company that they would work for.”
The program also teaches students how to build and troubleshoot drones, giving instruction in everything from producing 3D-printed parts, to putting the drone together, to programming the vehicle for flight. Students enrolled in the program learn important skills that can help them in the future career paths, whether that includes pursuing a degree in fields such as engineering or getting a drone-related job right out of high school.
Working with community
In addition to its Workforce Development mission, AeroX has partnered with several for-profit companies and community agencies to bring the goal of developing a regional AAM system closer to reality.
The nonprofit is working with several local healthcare systems, including Atrium Wake Forest Baptist, anacademic medical center and health system in Winston-Salem. The hospital system is partnering with UPS Flight Forward for drone deliveries.
AeroX is also working with Novant Health, a North Carolina-based four-state integrated healthcare system, which has previously worked with Zipline on health-related missions during the COVID pandemic.
Also in the public service sphere, AeroX has worked in conjunction with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office to help launch North Carolina’s first drones-as-first-responders (DFR) program.
“This is the true DFR program where they actually get a 911 call and they’re flying drones out to where those 911 calls are coming in from,” Yap said.
The private drone-related companies AeroX has partnered with include Arrive – whose Mailbox-as-a-Service (MaaS) platform facilitates the movement of goods and supplies seamlessly among people, robots, and drones — and Frontier Precision, a reseller of drones, both for the public safety and for the civil market for surveying and inspection.
The nonprofit is also working in collaboration with regional energy provider Duke Energy, in the use of drones for power-line inspection.
Yap said one of the biggest challenges to building out the ground-based surveillance, the first step in establishing a regional AAM, has been the relative lack of a regulatory framework establishing the rules of the road, or air for the new project. “There’s no regulations that cover what we’re trying to do. So, it’s like fitting a square block into a round hole. It’s tough,” he said.
“The FAA has been very flexible in trying to understand how, in the absence of laws that talk about ground-based surveillance, they can work through a structure that they have, to help us accomplish our mission,” he said.
“And then they’re hoping, and we are hoping as well, that during that process, the lessons that they learn will help inform future rulemaking so that in the future there can be rules and regulations around advanced interoperability more broadly.”
Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to Forbes.com and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.
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