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Archer eyes autonomy

By Jen Nevans

Published on: December 18, 2023
Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 13 seconds.

Former eVTOL rivals Archer Aviation and Wisk Aero have settled a longstanding trade secrets dispute, and the companies are now collaborating on autonomous flight.

Silicon Valley eVTOL developer Archer Aviation sees autonomy as a key technology to achieving mass scale adoption of eVTOL aircraft. The company plans to eventually develop a generation of autonomous eVTOL aircraft, with the goal of using the technology developed by its former rival Wisk Aero.

“Archer’s strategy has always been to find the most efficient path to market and in doing that, we started by having a piloted vehicle,” Archer’s CEO Adam Goldstein recently told the company’s shareholders. “That’s where the existing rules are. We can enter into service in the very near future and we’re really excited about that.”

Wisk’s Generation 6 aircraft. Wisk Photo

Goldstein is not the first to believe in the value of autonomy. As the industry matures and potentially hundreds of thousands of novel vehicles enter airspace, autonomy could be the key to unlocking scale in the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry. 

Wisk has long held that belief, designing its four-passenger eVTOL aircraft with plans to go straight to market as an autonomous air taxi. The Boeing-backed company has more than a decade of experience developing its autonomous system, first through its predecessor and now-defunct Kittyhawk.

In fact, Goldstein called Wisk a “leader in the industry” when it comes to autonomous technology — a very unexpected turn of events when just a few months ago, the two companies were battling in a longstanding trade secrets dispute.

Their clashes go back to April 2021, when Wisk launched the first legal attack against Archer, alleging the latter stole Wisk’s proprietary information, as well as copied a design that Wisk had submitted in a confidential patent application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in January 2020.

Archer had entered the eVTOL race in 2018 and recruited a strong team, many of whom were former Wisk employees. The company unveiled its first eVTOL design in February 2021 when it announced its deal with United Airlines and plans to go public through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company.           

The Archer Midnight eVTOL. Archer Photo

Archer and Wisk spent the following two-plus years launching legal attacks at one another, including Archer’s counterclaim that alleged Wisk had obtained the eVTOL design from Archer after its founders disclosed that design to Wisk’s chief engineer during a recruiting attempt in December 2019.

Archer said its Maker design was conceived by independent firm FlightHouse Engineering in the second half of 2019, before any former Wisk employees joined Archer and also before Wisk filed its patent application in early 2020.

As the legal battle persisted, both companies carried on with their eVTOL programs, motivated to find their position in the potentially multibillion-dollar sector.

Archer has continued to build up its leadership team, recently bringing on Uber Elevate co-founder Nikhil Goel as its chief commercial officer, and former FAA administrator Billy Nolen as its chief safety officer.

In August, the company became the second U.S. eVTOL firm — after Joby Aviation — to receive a special airworthiness certification for its production prototype from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Archer is poised to begin flight testing its Midnight aircraft this fall, and said it plans to begin piloted testing for FAA credit in early 2024.

Archer received a special airworthiness certificate for its production prototype from the FAA in August. Archer Photo

The eVTOL firm also made strides with the Department of Defense (DOD), securing a landmark $142-million deal that includes the delivery of up to six Midnight aircraft to the U.S. Air Force, starting later this year or early next year.

“The DOD has made an unprecedented commitment to helping Archer accelerate its technology,” Goldstein said. 

Meanwhile, earlier this year, Wisk appointed former Boeing executive Brian Yutko as its new CEO, perhaps foreshadowing the later announcement that Wisk would become a wholly owned subsidiary of Boeing after the latter acquired the remaining shares from Kittyhawk Corporation.

The company continues to make strides in its autonomous technology, including working with Skyports to develop a blueprint for autonomous operations. To develop its sixth-generation autonomous aircraft, Wisk is tapping into Canadian engineers and opened an engineering hub in Montreal last year.

The move into Canada was just the latest in Wisk’s plan to expand its global team. The company also expanded into Australia and has a presence in Atlanta, Georgia, and New Zealand, in addition to its headquarters and facilities around the San Francisco Bay area.

Closing the gap on public acceptance, the company completed its first public demonstration with its fifth-generation demonstrator at EAA AirVenture in July.

A graphic concept of the interior of the Archer Midnight. Archer Image

Both Archer’s and Wisk’s aircraft are all-electric designs tailored for short intracity passenger flights. The biggest difference between the two is how the aircraft will be operated, with Archer choosing the piloted route in order to get its aircraft certified sooner, and Wisk holding out until its autonomous approach is more viable.

However, recent news from the two companies indicated a new outlook for Archer’s future aircraft fleet. The two-year trade secrets dispute came to a halt in August — just days before the case was due to be heard in court — when the companies announced not only a settlement to the litigation, but that the two former rivals are now working together.

“Developing autonomy can be a very expensive path, so this is a good way for us to work with the group that probably has the most experience in the world in flight autonomy,” Goldstein said. Archer plans to continue “down the path of having piloted vehicles go to market early and then have an application to test these vehicles with autonomy as the technology becomes available.”

Wisk Aero plans to launch directly into autonomous operations. Wisk Aero Photo

As part of the settlement, Archer agreed to issue warrants to Wisk for US$25 million. And in return, Wisk’s parent company Boeing is now an investor in Archer, contributing toward the company’s most recent equity investment round of US$215 million, which, along with Boeing, also includes Stellantis, United Airlines and ARK Investment Management. This brings Archer’s total funding to date to over US$1.1 billion.

“Archer has a lot of success working with strategic partners. Boeing and Wisk spent a lot of time, a lot of years and a lot of money building autonomy, so there’s this natural overlap,” Goldstein said, who couldn’t give shareholders a timeline for when autonomy would be incorporated into its fleet. “At this stage, we’re working together to see how best to implement this.”

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1 Comment

  1. There seems to be a lot of eVTOL startups but I do not see any that seem practical. I am interested as I drive a Tesla and fly an experimental airplane. My Rutan designed derivative Cozy airplane is four seats and will cruise at 200 mph with over 1200 mile range plus 45 min reserve fuel. At economy cruise it will fly 2200 miles @ 100 mph. It seems the best eVTOL designs that have flown have at best 150 mi. range and that is with no reserve.
    What is the best range of any flying design with reserve?

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