Hello, and welcome to the Future of FLYING newsletter, our weekly look at the biggest stories in emerging aviation technology. From low-altitude drones to high-flying rockets at the edge of the atmosphere, we’ll take you on a tour of the modern flying world to help you make sense of it all.
Now for this week’s top story:
SpaceX’s Starship Could Fly Again This Week
What happened? It’s official: The FAA has cleared SpaceX’s Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster—which stacked together stand 400 feet tall—for a second test flight. In case you forgot, the spacecraft’s maiden voyage began and ended in flames, grounding Starship while the FAA investigated. Now, it has a modified launch license, and SpaceX expects it to fly on Saturday.
Cleared for takeoff: The FAA closed its investigation into Starship’s inaugural flight—which scattered ash and debris as far as 6 miles away from SpaceX’s launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas—in September. And on Wednesday afternoon, the agency wrapped up its license evaluation, greenlighting Starship for one more launch.
With a fresh license, Starship could launch as early as Friday, Musk said on his social media platform X (formerly Twitter), though the SpaceX boss hasn’t enjoyed a great track record when it comes to predicting the next flight. SpaceX on Thursday shared images of the rocket and booster stacked on the launch pad, but the launch how now been delayed to Saturday.
High stakes: A lot is riding on the success of Starship’s initial test flights, including several NASA moon missions. Last time, the rocket exploded just four minutes into its predicted 90-minute flight. But the next launch will debut a hot-stage separation system and a thrust vector control system for Super Heavy’s 33 Raptor engines, which should help.
The other major change SpaceX made was adding a water-cooled steel plate, a type of flame trench, to the launch pad. Flame trenches and water deluge systems are common on launch pads because they shield key infrastructure from the force of a launch, but Musk said SpaceX’s lacked one because it “wasn’t ready in time.”
Quick quote: “The FAA has given license authorization for the second launch of the SpaceX Starship Super Heavy vehicle. The FAA determined SpaceX met all safety, environmental, policy, and financial responsibility requirements,” the agency said in a statement.
My take: Is Starship moving too fast too soon? SpaceX is known for its “rapid iterative development” approach, which has seen Starlink satellites and Crew Dragon capsules flying for years already. But while Starship is moving much slower than those projects, Musk might be smart to pump the brakes.
A second Starship explosion could be catastrophic, not only for SpaceX (and the surrounding environment) but for NASA. The space agency has enlisted the company to build several variants of the spacecraft for the Artemis moon mission program, and it’s hoping SpaceX can complete an uncrewed demonstration flight to the lunar surface in 2024 or 2025. Already, there are concerns that the deadline won’t be met, forcing delays to NASA’s timeline.
The next test flight could go perfectly. But an explosion—and another FAA investigation—would be devastating to the campaign. The time pressure is obviously a factor. But SpaceX could be better off waiting and getting this right, rather than pushing to launch as soon as possible.
In Other News…
Joby’s Electric Air Taxi Takes Flight in New York City
(Courtesy: Joby Aviation)
What happened? Not only did Joby fly its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxi in the Big Apple for the first time—the flight was the city’s first for an eVTOL design. New York City Mayor Eric Adams attended the event at the Downtown Heliport (KJRB) in Manhattan, which also featured a demonstration flight from German eVTOL manufacturer Volocopter.
Visions of the future: While Joby and other eVTOL manufacturers have done most of their flying in sparsely populated rural areas, urban jungles like New York City will be the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry’s cash cow. The idea is to replace ground-based rideshare services, such as Uber or Lyft, with short-hop flights over congested city streets.
New York is expected to be one of Joby’s first launch markets, where it will fly in partnership with Delta Air Lines. The companies are now working with local organizations such as the Port Authority of New York to plan initial operations and build infrastructure at John F. Kennedy International Airport (KJFK) and LaGuardia Airport (KLGA), the city’s two largest airfields.
Skyryse’s Automated Autorotation Tech Lands Guinness World Record
What happened? Helicopter engine failures are relatively rare. But Skyryse wants to remove most chances of a hard landing in the few cases where they happen. The company last week completed the first fully automated autorotation for an emergency landing using a tech-equipped Robinson R66—a feat certified by Guinness World Records.
Keep it simple: Pilots practice autorotation during rotorcraft training often, but that doesn’t make the process any less complex. A manual autorotation involves four steps—each with multiple maneuvers—that require action to be taken in a matter of seconds. If done incorrectly or too late, the aircraft will come down hard and fast.
Skyryse wants to keep it simple. During last week’s flight, all the pilot had to do was press a button—automation handled the rest. Already, the company has received an Airbus A130 helicopter from partner Air Methods that it plans to retrofit with its tech. But the firm says its system can be installed on any kind of aircraft—not just rotorcraft.
And a Few More Headlines:
We’ve got another world’s first—Elroy Air said it completed the first flight of a turbine-powered, hybrid-electric cargo drone.
Honeywell said its AAM business has now racked up $10 billion worth of contracts.
Electric air taxi manufacturer Overair partnered with DFW Airport and Arlington, Texas, to bring AAM services to the region.
Airbus U.S. Space and Defense added a military drone business line, which it said will develop aircraft for the U.S. DOD.
Rolls-Royce confirmed all of its current turbine engines can run on 100 percent SAF.
[Courtesy: Samson Sky]
In a week full of first flights, there’s one we still haven’t talked about yet.
I’ve featured Samson Sky, the maker of the Switchblade flying sports car, in this spot before. But the company is worth another look following Switchblade’s maiden voyage on November 9. A prototype of the street-legal aircraft flew at 500 feet for nearly six minutes, marking the first test flight for the next generation of flying cars.
The use case for Switchblade is fascinating. Samson expects some customers not to fly at all, and no pilot certificate is required to purchase and drive it on the highway. But with a private pilot sign off, owners can drive the vehicle to the airport, unfold its wings and tail with the push of a button, and take off from the runway like an airplane. And importantly, Switchblade’s hybrid-electric engine runs on unleaded automotive gas rather than 100LL, allowing owners to fuel it at an automotive gas station.
Samson is still a long way from commercializing the flying sports car. But Switchblade’s first flight represented a major milestone and proving ground for its technology. If it can keep progressing, perhaps Samson will be the first to answer the increasingly popular catchphrase, “Where’s my flying car?”
On the Horizon…
The American drone industry is growing, but U.S. stakeholders and lawmakers would like to see it grow faster.
This week, members of the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) met with drone manufacturers Skydio, Vision Aerial, Brinc Drones, Red Cat, and Easy Aerial to ring in the organization’s Partnership for Drone Competitiveness. Launched in September, the partnership is a coalition meant to bolster the U.S. drone industry and is supported by several other manufacturers, including AeroVironment, Draganfly, and DroneUp.
Also in attendance were U.S. Senator Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and Representative Dina Titus (D-Nev.), and the event was met with support from Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), who has sponsored several drone-related bills, such as the Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act. AUVSI said it also held productive meetings with Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). Keep an eye on the legislation those lawmakers introduce.
Speaking of introduced legislation, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) this week introduced the No ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) or Drones for Iran Act, which takes aim at Iran’s production of long-range missiles and drones through sanctions. Representative Elise Stefanik (D-N.Y.) is introducing a companion bill in the House.
The results of sanctions against various international entities have been a mixed bag, but lawmakers are clearly looking for ways to stifle Iranian (and Russian) drone production. Iran is known to supply Russia with aircraft like the Shahed 136 kamikaze drone, and it’s thought to be aiding Hamas militants with drone tech used against Israel.
Moving from the sky to space, the White House on Wednesday laid out possible regulations for private space stations, space junk removal, and authority over novel space activities and infrastructure. Under the proposal, several U.S. agencies, including the Departments of Commerce and Transportation and the Federal Communications Commission, would have responsibilities in different areas, such as passenger safety or launch and reentry.
The House Science Committee, meanwhile, delayed its vote on the Commercial Space Act of 2023, which would update government oversight of human spaceflight and other commercial activities. It’ll be a crucial piece of legislation for Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and other companies looking to ferry passengers to the edge of the atmosphere.
Mark Your Calendars
Each week, I’ll be running through a list of upcoming industry events. The Dubai Airshow wraps up Friday in the United Arab Emirates, but here are a few conferences to keep an eye on:
Advanced Air Mobility Summit 2023—November 20-21 in Lisbon, Portugal
ICAO Drone Enable—December 5-7 in Montreal
11th Annual eVTOL Symposium—February 6-8 in Silicon Valley, California
Drone Show Korea 2024—March 6-8 in Busan, South Korea
World’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Conference—March 17-19 in Jerusalem
AUVSI Xponential 2024—April 22-25 in San Diego
Vertical Flight Society’s Forum 80—May 7-9 in Montreal
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