Establish the Advanced Air Mobility Fire Safety Program

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By André Giacini | September 18, 2022

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 7 seconds.

The electric aircraft revolution has the potential to quiet aviation, reduce the carbon footprint of travel, and further connect communities. Advances in the development of lithium batteries and other energy technologies, such as hydrogen, have shown promising results and could soon be a real contender to replace traditional fuel tanks and combustion engines.

Skyports
Much like the electric car market, the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry is grappling with upgrading existing infrastructure, designing new purpose-built facilities, and mitigating the risks of using advanced air mobility systems. carbon-free fuel. Picture of the Skyports

Early successes include the flight of battery-powered short take-off and landing (STOL) and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. Prime examples include Beta Technology’s Alia-250, which recently flew from Burlington, Vermont, to Bentonville, Arkansas, and Joby Aviation’s S4, which has more than a thousand test flights to its credit, as well as the transition from conventional to electric take-off aircraft, such as the Pipistrel Velis Electro. With clear signs of success already, this could be the start of a major shift in aviation.

A challenge with this change is that our aviation infrastructure was not built for alternative energy sources. Much like the electric car market, the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry is grappling with upgrading existing infrastructure, designing new purpose-built facilities, and mitigating the risks of using advanced air mobility systems. carbon-free fuel.

The protection of the public, passengers and property against these risks is an area of ​​particular interest. As unlikely as a fire to occur, it is essential to ensure that safe practices and mitigation measures are in place.

Today, when a passenger boards a commercial flight from Miami to Los Angeles, they are unlikely to realize the coordinated efforts that are in place to deal with the remotest chance that a non-nominal event requiring a intervention in the event of a fire.

They are also unlikely to realize that these two airports have spent millions of dollars on runway improvements and specialized fire engines, that the airports regularly test fire extinguishing systems, and that each airport organizes table-top exercises and real-life scenarios with first responders and emergency services.

The average passenger will not know that the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and aircraft manufacturers perform simulated and actual testing of aircraft evacuation procedures and onboard fire suppression systems, which represent every part of aircraft design, right down to flame retardants. seat materials and even the impact of the disinfectants used to clean them.

The passenger does not need to understand this depth of detail, but it is a critical step in a manufacturer’s, operator’s and infrastructure provider’s efforts to demonstrate compliance, safety and preparedness.

While commercial operation of eVTOL aircraft is still several years away, the industry approaches operations in a very similar way – iterating aircraft design, testing materials, designing infrastructure, and coordinating with aircraft personnel. emergency in order to prepare for an incident that will hopefully never happen. occur.

In August, the Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) Working Group (WG) met for its annual symposium, where first responders, airport and heliport operators, pilots, life safety experts, training centers and fire suppression innovators shared their efforts to continually make aviation safer.

This year, the conference included a discussion on AAM and the transition of aircraft from carbon-based fuels. The session was a continuation of the work conducted within the Urban Air Mobility Committee of the ARFF Task Force, focusing on educating the wider industry: how the emergency response community can -she getting ready; what the response community needs or would like to see from aircraft manufacturers and operators; what the AAM industry can do to adapt to existing frameworks; and what lessons from traditional aviation incident response are relevant, regardless of fuel type.

Although the objective is the same, the specifics of responding to jet fuel fires versus fires from alternative energy sources vary. For eVTOL aircraft using lithium-ion batteries, Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) may not be as effective when the goal is rapid cooling.

Thermal runaway is almost impossible to stop once it has started, and although the spread of leaking fuels is not a risk, there is a danger associated with the production of toxic fumes. Electric planes have a lower amount of stored potential energy than an equivalent-sized carbon plane, but its release can be very concentrated.

When dealing with a lithium battery fire, the volume of water expended to respond to an electric car fire may not be available in an aviation environment, nor intelligent use of a scarce resource in some places.

Complete extinguishment of a battery may not be necessary depending on fire attack objectives. Additionally, purpose-built infrastructure can be spread across a community instead of centrally located at a single large airport with wide access to resources.

However, some aspects will not change, such as having an informed and experienced response and communication plan, forming evacuation protocols based on aircraft type, maintaining alternate landing locations, isolating and managing aircraft presenting a risk and to protect life and property.

Fire is a subject of intense attention for the AAM community and regulators. In addition to the ARFF working group, participation is growing in a number of other groups. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is currently updating infrastructure standards to account for changes in power sources (eg, NFPA 418).

The European standards body, EUROCAE, is in the process of forming a group of rescue and firefighting services (RFFS) to assess European operational standards for eVTOL aircraft. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) has assembled an ad hoc technical group to share lessons and identify gaps that may exist in the field of aircraft fire and rescue.

During this time, the FAA Technical Briefing Draft 105 and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Prototype Engineering Design Specification for Vertiports specify the need to deal with incidents and risks related to fires.

Through these efforts and in direct partnership with communities, regulatory authorities around the world and subject matter experts, the AAM industry strives to achieve the level of safety expected in commercial aviation. The AAM industry has emphasized getting it right and solving problems before they arise while avoiding placing new burdens on communities without adequate support.

Andrew Giacini is Skyports Regulatory Affairs Manager for the Americas. He also chairs the Electric Propulsion and Innovation Infrastructure (EPIC) Subcommittee of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), is a member of the Urban Air Mobility Committee of the Rescue and Countermeasures Task Force aircraft fires and served on the pre-drafting of the National Fire Protection Association 418. vertiport task force.

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