Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 30 seconds.
For most players in the emerging urban air mobility space, UAM is synonymous with eVTOL aircraft: vehicles that can take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, but with a fraction of the noise and cost. There are some exceptions, like Quantum XYZ — which envisions service between Los Angeles area airports using electric airplanes — but for the most part, if a vehicle can’t touch down within the space allotted to a conventional helipad, it’s not seen as a viable air taxi.
Michael Norcia, the co-founder and CEO of Oakland, California-based Pyka, begs to differ. Norcia believes there’s a sweet spot between eVTOL aircraft — which achieve their vertical takeoff and landing capability at a daunting technical cost — and eCTOL (conventional take-off and landing) airplanes, which require thousands of feet of runway to operate safely. Norcia is betting that the near-term future of UAM lies in eSTOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft, which combine short field versatility with technical simplicity and efficiency.
If you need proof that he’s on to something, consider this: Pyka’s autonomous, fully electric STOL planes are already performing commercial crop-dusting operations in New Zealand. Most eVTOL aircraft aren’t anywhere close to commercialization.
“People don’t really grasp how difficult it is to make something that looks like a Cessna hover,” Norcia told eVTOL.com, explaining that he sees many eVTOL startups falling into the trap of making overly optimistic assumptions.
“When you’re starting an eVTOL company, you really want eVTOL to be a good idea. You’re going to hedge your bets a little bit, and [say] ‘OK, the batteries are maybe going to be a little bit better than they are right now,” he continued.
“[But] the physics of a hovering vehicle are just extremely sensitive to those assumptions that you make. If you assume a cost of producing lift in terms of how many pounds of propulsion system you need for every pound of lift you create, and that assumption is off by 50%, the effect on the vehicle is much bigger than 50%.”
Norcia knows a thing or two about the eVTOL business. He previously worked for two of the industry’s most serious and respected players: Joby Aviation (as an intern in the early days of the company) and Wisk, the Boeing-Kitty Hawk joint venture that emerged from Zee Aero, where Norcia spent over two years as a power systems engineer.
Norcia is complimentary of both of his previous employers. But his time in the eVTOL world convinced him that not only are the physics of vertical lift especially unforgiving, so are the certification rules for passenger-carrying aircraft. As he put it, “It’s just an extremely difficult thing to do, where you’re trying to create a really massively innovative piece of technology, but doing it within the confines of the most tightly regulated industry that I’m aware of.”
So when Norcia and his co-founders — Chuma Ogunwole, Kyle Moore, and Nathan White — struck out on their own three years ago, they decided to take a more practical approach: sidestepping the technical challenges specific to VTOL aircraft with an STOL design, and the regulatory hurdles by seeking out unmanned applications to serve as stepping stones to future passenger-carrying operations.
As Norcia recalled, Pyka’s founders “bootstrapped it for maybe three or four months” before being accepted into the startup accelerator Y Combinator with a proposal for a 400-pound (180-kilogram), super short take-off and landing autonomous airplane.
“We spent one month designing it, and then two months building it, and finished it and flew it before Demo Day,” he said. “That is probably the single most impressive technical feat I’ll have in my life, working with the team on that.”
Pyka quickly raised $3 million through Y Combinator (getting “the false impression that fundraising is easy,” Norcia said). The team used that money to develop their first eSTOL plane for crop-dusting — a revenue-generating application that stood out as particularly suitable for an autonomous electric aircraft.
Pyka’s design is almost entirely custom: from the airframe — which is now being manufactured at a composites shop in Sacramento, California — to the lithium-polymer battery packs, motor controllers, and flight computer hardware and software.
“It looks a lot like a sailplane, which is just generally true of electric aircraft because they need to be quite efficient,” Norcia pointed out. Leveraging the advantages of distributed electric propulsion, the aircraft that is currently flying in New Zealand has three 8-kW electric motors, and future designs could have even more motors for additional redundancy. It has a 200-lb. (90-kg) payload capacity, cruises at 90 miles per hour, and can take off and land in 300 feet (90 meters).
Pyka is currently at work on the next iteration of the vehicle, which will have three 20-kW electric motors and be able to take off and land in just half the distance. This aircraft will have a payload capacity of 625 lb. (283 kg), which is more than it weighs. “So when the vehicle is flying, more than half of the weight is the liquid inside of it, which is very unusual for a vehicle to have that ratio,” Norcia noted.
While Pyka hopes to gain approval for its planes to conduct commercial operations in the U.S., in the meantime, it has been flying two of them in the Canterbury region of New Zealand’s South Island — the same area where Wisk has been testing its Cora eVTOL air taxi. The operations are certified under New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Rules part 102 for unmanned aircraft.
According to Norcia, the company’s launch customer is “a very successful farmer [who is] very interested in technology,” and whose demand for aerial application services outstrips what an established local operator can provide.
“We’ve been doing all sorts of different things for him, spraying the full spectrum of pesticides: from herbicides to insecticides and fungicides,” Norcia said. He noted that while Pyka’s aircraft have a maximum endurance of around 40 minutes, they typically land every 10 minutes to refill their chemical tanks, providing an opportunity to swap out battery packs before they’re fully depleted. “It’s quite a convenient mission for electric aviation, where range is not really a particularly important factor.”
This real-world experience has been invaluable for moving the program forward. “It’s important to be flying every day if you can manage it, or as close to every day as possible,” Norcia said. “That’s when you learn everything, is when the vehicle’s out actually doing something.”
And it’s not only the vehicle that is essential to Pyka’s operations; so, too, are its human operators. Norcia said that one of the key lessons the company is learning from its autonomous flights in New Zealand is how having a human in the loop can help or hinder those operations. Autonomous aircraft still have operators, and without putting the two together, Norcia said, “it’s hard to think of ways in which things could be challenging for operators. It is, I think, a bit easier to think about technical problems and technical solutions to things . . . than it is to think about the different failure modes of a human-heavy operation.”
While Pyka has not experienced any catastrophic operator errors to date, the company has adapted both its aircraft and its procedures based on insights from the field. For example, Norcia said, “we’ve figured out ways to make the vehicle really, really easy to fly. So someone who has never flown a model airplane before can safely fly the plane on their first try.”
Defining the role of the operator may be one of the most profound lessons to come out of Pyka’s work in New Zealand. Norcia pointed out that many passenger-carrying aircraft programs revolve around either a fully piloted or fully autonomous model — the latter being one in which passengers have “zero training and zero responsibilities.”
“When you think about it that way, you end up having to engineer a technical solution [to] every possible problem that this aircraft could run into,” he said. By assuming instead that a minimally trained operator will have certain responsibilities, Pyka has greatly simplified the technical requirements for safe operations.
“It’s just opened up our minds,” Norcia continued. “Now when I think about the future of autonomous aviation, what I think is by far the most likely [scenario] is that the occupants of the vehicle [will] have some minimum set of responsibilities, [and not be] totally useless.”