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NASA Goes Live with Surrogate eVTOL Flight Tests in Texas

Blue helicopter hovering over grass and bushes.
A Bell Textron 407GXi helicopter, representing an electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, flies during a NASA-led test on Oct. 10, 2022. This test gathered essential data about how to manage air traffic for high-demand routes that we will see with the addition of Advanced Air Mobility. This flight is part of NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign research effort, which partners with companies like Bell and others.
University of North Texas

On a rainy October day, a Bell Textron 407GXi helicopter lifted off from the Hillwood Alliance Texas Flight Test Center in Fort Worth, Texas, and began making its way to the University of North Texas Discovery Park in Denton, about 25 miles away.

It might have looked like a normal flight during its buzz over the trees, but for a team of NASA-led researchers, the helicopter was standing in for a next-generation electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft – and showing them how such an aircraft might help travelers and cargo travel on regional routes.

During the tests, held Oct. 10 and 11, NASA used computer modeling software to guide the helicopter in a designated lane that simulated an eVTOLs vehicle’s potential flight path. The research team tested how radio transmission systems would work together on such routes to communicate to air traffic control in real time.

“A fundamental objective of the test was to investigate how new data services that are focused on real-time communication of potential hazards would be shared among aircraft operators and supporting systems,” said Gerrit Everson, the partner demonstration technical lead for NASA’s AAM National Campaign. “Our team of industry and government partners worked incredibly hard to plan and execute the recent test activities and obtain data that is vital to maturing the AAM ecosystem.”

NASA’s AAM mission envisions a revolutionary new air transportation system, and the National Campaign team leads foundational research on the vehicle performance, autonomy, infrastructure, and airspace planning that will allow an AAM ecosystem to materialize. NASA AAM research with industry partners will help the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) establish certification standards for eVTOLs and provide industry with a better understanding about how to design these new vehicles to be safe and quiet.

As infrastructure partners in this phase of the National Campaign, the North Texas Cohort research team is composed 15 entities, including:

  • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • The University of North Texas based in Denton, Texas
  • Bell Textron of Fort Worth, Texas
  • Unmanned Experts Inc. of Glendale, Colorado
  • Advanced Air Mobility of Texas (AAMTEX) based in Fort Worth, Texas
  • The Hillwood Alliance of Dallas, Texas
  • Avianco of Dallas, Texas
  • Delmont Systems of Hurst, Texas
  • ResilienX of Syracuse, New York
  • Metron Aviation of Herndon, Virginia
  • Hermes Autonomous Air Mobility Solutions of Middletown, Delaware
  • Frequentis of Columbia, Maryland
  • Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence and Innovation based in Corpus Christi, Texas
  • Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) based in Amherst, Massachusetts

For the October test, NASA researchers and other team members monitored the helicopter through two ‘laps’ of a pre-planned test route.

“This test was the culmination of many months of preparation to combine various parts of a future AAM ecosystem in flight including weather, telemetry, and demand and capacity data,” said Greg Juro, the AAM National Campaign’s North Texas cohort lead. “This test successfully proved that this type of critical data can be successfully integrated and relayed between ground-based systems and an airborne vehicle.”

New forms of highly automated AAM aircraft, such eVTOLs, will transform air transportation, cargo delivery, and a variety of public services. The results from this test will drive industry standards in airspace management, vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, and autonomous flight operations – all of which will be required for eVTOLs and other AAM vehicles to safely operate.

As part of a combined effort across NASA’s AAM portfolio, the National Campaign project will continue to build upon this research in the phases of testing planned for the next few years.