features Bringing autonomous AAM to New Zealand through Airspace Integration Trials

Now in its fourth year, New Zealand is continuing to explore how to integrate autonomous aircraft into its airspace.
Avatar for Emma Kelly By Emma Kelly | August 12, 2022

Estimated reading time 5 minutes, 51 seconds.

New Zealand is working toward controlled airspace demonstrations as part of its Airspace Integration Trials Program (AITP), which is aimed at integrating advanced air mobility (AAM) safely into the country’s aviation system. This follows successful demonstrations of airspace integration in a simulated environment as part of the program earlier this year.

Wisk Cora
California-based Wisk Aero is the only passenger-carrying eVTOL company in the New Zealand Airspace Integration Program. Wisk Aero Image

The AITP began in 2019 and is scheduled to continue through to the end of 2024. It is run by the country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) innovative partnerships team, alongside the Ministry of Transport, the Civil Aviation Authority and air navigation service provider Airways New Zealand.

The program comprises 10 industry partners — passenger eVTOL developer Wisk; aerial imaging company Kea Aerospace; drone companies Envico Technologies, Aeronavics and Pyper Vision; logistics/cargo companies Swoop Aero and Merlin Labs; reusable space launch vehicle company Dawn Aerospace; compliance management specialist One Reg; and advanced aviation and artificial intelligence company MAU163.

“The program is currently on schedule to meet the long-term goals that were set by the government in 2019,” said Joe McKay, director of innovative partnerships at MBIE.

Those goals were to further position New Zealand as a location of choice for the development, testing and certification of advanced unmanned aircraft and adjacent technologies; realize the full potential for innovation within the country’s existing regulatory regime; generate evidence to inform medium- and long-term policy decisions on the integration of advanced unmanned aircraft; and increase awareness of the potential economic and social benefits of advanced unmanned aircraft applications.

“Ten industry partners have joined the program, seven of which are actively conducting testing in their respective fields,” said McKay, adding the majority of these trials are partial ones that test a particular element of the overall solution. “A successful demonstration of airspace integration in a simulated environment was conducted in early 2022, and we are now working toward replicating this in controlled airspace.”

The AITP is also looking to add new partners that will complement the existing research that is already under way, he added. Trials are being conducted across the country, although the majority are in the South Island.

Wisk is the only passenger-carrying eVTOL company in the New Zealand program. The U.S.-based company has had an operation in New Zealand since 2016, conducting research and development and flight testing of its fifth-generation eVTOL aircraft.

It was attracted to New Zealand due to the AAM opportunities in the country, the favorable environment for research and development, as well as the progressive vision of the New Zealand Government to integrate uncrewed aircraft into its current transport system.

Wisk’s activities under the AITP include a first phase trial in 2021 exploring issues that would allow a highly-automated, uncrewed system to be safely integrated alongside crewed aircraft into airspace, followed by interactions with air traffic control in a simulated controlled airspace environment.

Alongside the AITP activity, Wisk has been flight testing its eVTOL in New Zealand. The vehicle has also made public appearances in the country as part of Wisk’s “show and tell” approach in its social acceptance efforts, and the company has also been working with local airline Air New Zealand on sustainability initiatives.

Wisk’s sixth-generation eVTOL, which will have four seats rather than the two in its fifth-generation vehicle, is being developed in the U.S. and will be unveiled in October, the company announced. The aircraft will need to complete U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulatory approvals before it can be considered for testing in New Zealand, McKay said.

Both Merlin Labs and Swoop are planning to test their cargo-capable aircraft later this year in New Zealand and are actively seeking opportunities for commercialization, according to McKay.

“We are working toward having commercial unmanned eVTOL operations outside controlled airspace, but we don’t have a specific timeframe at this stage. These are most likely to be cargo/small package operations only, in a similar manner to Wing and Swoop in Australia,” McKay said.

Wing, for example, currently operates food, drink and pharmacy deliveries in parts of Queensland and Canberra. McKay said the government doesn’t have a timeline for the operation of passenger-capable, uncrewed aircraft in New Zealand, but the regulatory process is progressing.

“We understand the Civil Aviation Authority is gaining value from working with advanced aviation operations,” he said. “Each interaction adds to their understanding of what future use cases might exist and the safety and regulatory considerations for each operation.”

New Zealand is the ideal environment for such activities, the government believes.

“New Zealand has a very progressive regulatory system that takes a risk-based approach to the certification of advanced aviation,” McKay said. “We have a thriving aerospace sector, driven largely by the success of companies like Rocket Lab, with strong support from tertiary organizations that are expanding their academic programs for aerospace research. New Zealand also has the benefit of large sparsely populated areas and a relatively low, by world standards, number of other airspace users.”

Meanwhile, across the Tasman in Australia, Wisk has been displaying its fifth-generation eVTOL in Brisbane as part of its partnership with the Council of Mayors South East Queensland to roll out autonomous AAM in the region in time for the 2032 Brisbane Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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