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The joint venture Wisk is Boeing’s “singular, go-to-market approach” to the emerging urban air mobility (UAM) sector, and Wisk remains committed to launching with self-flying rather than piloted air taxis, company leaders told eVTOL.com.
In a wide-ranging conversation this week, Wisk CEO Gary Gysin and Brian Yutko, Boeing’s chief engineer for sustainability and future mobility, described Boeing’s increased activities with Wisk, including integrating personnel from Aurora Flight Sciences into Wisk’s development team.
Aurora, a Boeing subsidiary where Yutko previously served as a senior vice president, launched flight testing of its own UAM prototype called the Passenger Air Vehicle (PAV) in January 2019. However, the PAV was damaged in an accident later that year, and the future of the program was cast into doubt after Boeing paused work at its NeXt innovation unit in 2020.
Now, Yutko confirmed, Boeing is leveraging Aurora’s personnel and experience in Wisk, the joint venture created in 2019 with Kitty Hawk Corporation, to develop the latter’s two-seat Cora eVTOL as a self-flying air taxi. (Kitty Hawk, which is backed by Google co-founder Larry Page and led by Sebastian Thrun, is also independently developing another eVTOL called Heaviside.)
“I’m slightly biased in saying so, but I think in the space of advanced technology development . . . there’s hardly a company that exists that can explore the new dimensions of aerospace faster and with more rigor and with more expertise than Aurora,” Yutko said.
“Aurora through the years has flown dozens of unpiloted systems that have all kinds of capabilities that are relevant to Wisk’s mission. And so what we’re doing now is strategically applying the lessons learned from dozens of those prior programs to the Wisk activities,” he continued, acknowledging that Wisk — which as the descendant of Zee Aero has developing Cora for more than a decade — “has a ton of experience likewise in some of those domains as well.”
Wisk’s decision to pursue autonomous air taxis from the outset is a controversial one. Most eVTOL developers are building high levels of autonomy into their aircraft, and expect to eventually transition to fully autonomous operations for their anticipated safety advantages and cost savings, which could be key to making urban air mobility accessible to the masses.
However, many people expect that it will take much longer for regulators to approve self-flying aircraft like Cora, compared to the piloted air taxis of competitors including Joby and Archer. In a recent article on LinkedIn, Mark Moore, formerly with Uber Elevate, identified Wisk as one of the three leading eVTOL developers, but portrayed its dependence on autonomy as a significant shortcoming. “[In my opinion] it’s going to take a decade for significant autonomous operations to be approved,” he wrote.
Unlike Joby Aviation and Archer, which have declared their intent to launch operations by 2024, Wisk isn’t committing to a specific timeline.
“Our intention is to be first with self-flying, so that’s our goal; that’s what we’re driving to,” Gysin said. “We’re confident in where our timelines are, and our path of self-flying and working with the FAA and other regulators . . . but you won’t hear us out there trumpeting a particular launch date.”
“Safe to market — that’s our mantra,” Yutko said. “We do not view this as a race; we view this as a journey that involves a lot of building of very complex systems. And so we are focused fundamentally on solving the really hard problems, and we think that when we build that foundation of having solved those hard problems, that ultimately we’ll be in a great place to participate in what will be a very sizable market.”
Wisk is engaged in several partnerships that will help it define the regulatory pathway for its self-flying electric air taxis. In New Zealand, the company is working with that country’s government on an Airspace Integration Trial that will demonstrate various use cases for its unpiloted aircraft. In the U.S., Wisk has joined NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign with a specific focus on safe autonomous flight.
Crucially, Wisk does not envision creating a separate infrastructure to accommodate its self-flying aircraft.
“Any autonomous system by my estimation will have to interact in mixed-use airspace,” Yutko said. “There’s a broad swath of users of the airspace, and so being able to integrate safely is one of the key challenges for autonomy.”
According to Gysin, Wisk has now iterated through five generations of aircraft and conducted more than 1,500 flights without incident at its testing areas in California and New Zealand. With Aurora’s involvement, the company is now developing its sixth-generation eVTOL, which “is the one that will get type-certified,” he said. However, he declined to share any details about the aircraft beyond what has already been revealed, notably that it will be larger and optimized for the passenger-carrying mission.
“Wisk is 10 years in, sixth-generation, and combining that with the expertise of Boeing and [Aurora], we have the right expertise to make the right airplane that can provide a real value proposition for the market and be safe and certifiable,” Yutko asserted.
Investors keeping an eye on the UAM space shouldn’t count on Wisk going public anytime soon. Commenting on the recent surge of activity involving special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) — which have carried Joby and Archer to multi-billion-dollar valuations — Gysin said the visibility it has brought to the space has been generally positive. But he cautioned that there are drawbacks to having public investors involved at this early stage.
“It’s a brand-new market, brand-new technology, no customers yet, and so things will change; things will adapt,” he said. “We’re a well-funded joint venture between two industry titans if you will — between the Larry Page/Kitty Hawk/Sebastian Thrun Silicon Valley kind of play, partnered with Boeing. So we’re happy with our structure; we’re happy being a private company.”