Urban Air Mobility: Targeting autonomous flight operations from the beginning

Urban Air Mobility: Targeting autonomous flight operations from the beginning

August 25, 2021

How autonomous Urban Air Mobility will allow the industry to scale

Urban Air Mobility manufacturers regularly face the challenge to argue how research, development, and certification costs of approximately USD 2 billion per certified aircraft should be financially attractive and reasonable. To answer this question, we spoke with Gary Gysin, CEO of Wisk, and Chris Brown, Communications Lead at Wisk. According to both, aircrafts need to become autonomous in order to reduce costs and allow attractive returns on investment from operation onward.

Picture of Wisk eVTOL aircraft
Wisk will use ground-based supervisors, who monitors autonomous aircrafts and intervenes if required.

What is your vision when it comes to Urban Air Mobility?

Gary Gysin: Our vision is a world where people can spend less time getting there and more time being there. This means all-electric, sustainable, affordable Urban Air Mobility (UAM) services that are accessible and available to all.

"The introduction of autonomous UAM and the growth of public acceptance will allow the industry to scale and costs to lower, resulting in mass adoption."
Portrait of Gary Gysin

Gary Gysin


How do you see the UAM market developing over the next 20-30 years?

Gary Gysin: We see the UAM market developing similar to the way traditional aviation evolved. Initially, this will be a service used by business professionals and early adopters. However, the introduction of autonomous UAM and the growth of public acceptance will allow the industry to scale and costs to lower, resulting in mass adoption.

In terms of the industry, we'll most likely see the launch of cargo services, followed by passenger transport, starting with piloted and followed soon after by autonomous. Globally, we've seen that Asia has created an environment where Advance Air Mobility (AAM) will go to market first (e.g. China, South Korea, Singapore). However, the US, EMEA, and others will not be far behind that, on similar timelines.

How do you see the Inter City Air Taxi market (between 50 and 250 kilometers) developing, given that the Cora aircraft has a range of up to 40 kilometers?

Gary Gysin: At Wisk, we view routes in three categories: intracity (within a city center and city to suburbs, e.g. San Francisco to Mountain View), intercity (city to neighboring city, e.g. LA to San Diego), and regional (connecting regional hubs, e.g. LA to San Francisco). For our initial launch of services, we intend to focus on the intracity space, as that is where we believe there is the greatest market opportunity. However, the beauty of the developing UAM market is the breadth of opportunity that is available. When you look at the variety of configurations among the leading OEMs in the space, you can understand that there is plenty of opportunity for each player and it's easy to see why so many analysts are predicting a total addressable market in the trillions.

What are the main advantages the strategic partnerships with Boeing and Kitty Hawk hold for Wisk – and which aspects will they benefit?

Chris Brown: Wisk is fortunate to have backing from two leaders in the aviation industry: the Boeing Company and Kitty Hawk. There are a number of benefits to having Boeing as an investor and strategic partner, including autonomous flight & eVTOL leadership, certification experience and expertise, joint regulatory engagement, ecosystem and technology investments, stakeholder relationships & reach, and aerospace scale.

What role do other Boeing subsidiaries, such as Aurora Flight Sciences or Insitu Inc., play for Urban Air Mobility or Wisk?

Chris Brown: Boeing's ability to bring resources to bear is enabling the achievement of safe autonomous flight for all. As Boeing's sole focus in the eVTOL space, Wisk now has access to the industry leading expertise of Aurora Flight Sciences. Aurora's knowledge, support, and experience will be focused on helping further propel Wisk's development efforts. Insitu is supporting our Transport Trial under the New Zealand Government's Airspace Integration Trial Program.

How do Boeing & Wisk see the impact of UAM and eVTOL on the global commercial airliner market?

Chris Brown: We cannot speak to Boeing's view on the impact of UAM. However, our view is that UAM will have a complementary impact on the global commercial airliner market. We are pursuing routes that are not currently flown by commercial airliners. UAM will serve as a more sustainable and environmentally conscious alternative to ground-based transportation, saving people time while also being better for the planet. We are also seeing airlines express interest in partnerships and potential collaboration.

Wisk is one of the few eVTOL players who target autonomous flight operations from day 1 of operations: What are the main advantages but also the risks of this approach?

Gary Gysin: Correct, Wisk is committed to a self-flying first approach. We believe that this approach has many advantages, including improved safety and easier scalability. Autonomy is where the industry is ultimately headed. However, there are opportunities and challenges – such as social acceptance and regulatory approval and certification – that must be addressed for autonomous UAM to achieve mass adoption.

When will autonomous flights be allowed by regulations in a) rural areas and b) urban areas? And which (additional) regulations need to be in place before autonomous flights are allowed for eVTOL vehicles?

Gary Gysin: It's important to acknowledge that there are already autonomous flight operations in the US (drones, large UAS, etc.). While there are different levels of risk in rural vs. urban areas, they are all regulated by the FAA. There are three core components that need to be addressed for autonomous eVTOL passenger flight: airspace integration, aircraft certification, and operational certification. We are currently actively involved with the FAA and other partners (like NASA) to address these three areas and are making strong progress on all fronts.

Are there differences between different countries in allowing autonomous flight?

Gary Gysin: Globally, we're finding that many countries are still figuring out what eVTOL and AAM/UAM regulations look like. Some countries are being prescriptive, while others are being more flexible. However, all appreciate that this is an industry that is growing and approaching quickly.

Across geographies, UAM/AAM industry players – in particular OEMs – will need to engage with regulators on the development of a new set of rules that ensure safety, while taking advantage of the great leaps in technology maturation that we have seen in the past decade (and are sure to see over the next decade and beyond).

Can the aircraft fly autonomously from the beginning or do you need a safety pilot (in the vehicle or on the ground)?

Gary Gysin: Our aircraft is autonomous and can fully self-fly. We first flew autonomously in 2017 and have been doing so ever since. Our system is designed with the inclusion of a ground-based supervisor, which is a role more akin to ATC than a traditional pilot. While the aircraft flies itself, the supervisor monitors each flight and, if needed, may send an override command (e.g. change in course), which is then executed autonomously by the aircraft.

Can you give your estimate on the overall length of time and the cost (CAPEX) for achieving type certification, from initiating talks with FAA until type certification?

Gary Gysin: We are not providing timelines for certification. Much of the certification process is driven by third parties and therefore we do not commit to a specific deadline. In terms of cost, most industry experts agree that bringing a new aircraft to market, including certification, is estimated to cost approximately USD 2 billion.

Cora operates with an experimental airworthiness certificate: What are the milestones you need to pass to receive this certificate and how far is it from there to full type certification?

Gary Gysin: An experimental airworthiness certificate can be achieved by way of an application to the FAA that describes the purpose of the experiment, the aircraft configuration, and outlines the program objectives. The FAA then prescribes the conditions and limitations necessary to ensure safe operation of the aircraft. In comparison, a type certificate is significantly more involved and requires a much more extensive process.

In your view, what are the major building blocks that make up the UAM ecosystem or UAM value chain?

Chris Brown: The major building blocks forming the UAM ecosystem are infrastructure (e.g. vertiports , mobility-as-a-service), specialist technology (e.g. sensors) and demand/customer integrators (e.g. Blade ).

"No single company can do it all. Partnering and building an ecosystem of companies is key."
Portrait of Chris Brown

Chris Brown

Communications Lead

For which of the building blocks does it make sense to establish partnerships and for which is it beneficial to go it alone?

Chris Brown: No single company can do it all. Partnering and building an ecosystem of companies is key. We are considering partnership on several fronts, including specialist technology (e.g. sensors), air mobility networks, multimodal customer integrators, and infrastructure development and management.

Currently, Wisk is 100% vertically integrated, which is not sustainable for future aircraft. In addition to certifying the aircraft itself, this means we must certify every element we create. The cost and time involved in this process is too great and that's where we see the most value in partnerships.

Does the extensive test flight history of Kitty Hawk support Wisk in moving faster than competitors?

Chris Brown: To clarify: Throughout our corporate history – whether initially as Zee.Aero, part of Kitty Hawk, or as Wisk – the team has completed approximately 1,500 test flights across all generations of our full-scale aircraft. We believe our extensive flight test history (most of which has been autonomous) positions us to be a leader in the UAM space. While we know that our self-flying first approach means that we will not be first to market, we fully intend to be the first to bring a fully autonomous aircraft to market. We employ a "Safe-to-Market" strategy, which puts safety at the heart of everything we do. We will not bring a product to market that we are not absolutely certain will deliver SAFE, everyday flight for everyone.

Many thanks for your great insights. We are looking forward to the future and are excited about your next steps!

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