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The Federal Aviation Administration is dramatically revising its approach to certifying electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, injecting new uncertainty into the certification programs of the United States’ leading eVTOL developers.

Although the shift comes as the FAA has been broadly rebalancing its relations with industry since the 737 Max crashes exposed its insufficient oversight of Boeing’s certification programs, this recent move appears more geared toward bureaucracy than safety. Specifically, it is driven by a decision to establish operational rules for eVTOLs as “powered-lift” aircraft — a definition that was originally introduced into federal regulations to cover conventionally powered tiltrotors like the Leonardo AW609, in development for the last two decades.

Related: Approaching first flight, Eviation’s Alice readies to test FAA

Until now, developers of winged eVTOL aircraft including Joby Aviation, Archer and Beta Technologies have been proceeding on the assumption that their aircraft would be certified under the FAA’s overhaul of small airplane certification rules that took effect in 2017. Those performance-based regulations were created out of collaboration with industry and kicked off a wave of new entrants emboldened by the opportunities they created to certify innovative technologies.

Now, the FAA under new Acting Administrator Billy Nolen is reversing course, the agency confirmed to The Air Current, a stunning development that appears to have largely caught the industry off guard. 

While the full implications of the shift are unclear, it is likely to rattle investors who had believed that the FAA was working in harmony with industry to provide eVTOL aircraft with a clear route to certification — an impression that Nolen himself bolstered in a recent appearance on 60 Minutes.

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