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The eVTOL will have an operating range of 80 kilometers (50 miles) and a cruise speed of 120 km/h (75 mph). Airbus Image

Airbus, Boeing work toward autonomous eVTOL operations

By Aaron Karp | February 2, 2023

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 59 seconds.

Airbus and Boeing reiterated their belief in autonomous air taxi service, asserting pilotless eVTOL aircraft will be more predictable, safer and less costly to operate.

The eVTOL will have an operating range of 80 kilometers (50 miles) and a cruise speed of 120 km/h (75 mph). Airbus Image
While Airbus is looking to certify its CityAirbus NextGen four-seat eVTOL as a piloted vehicle to start, the aerospace company plans to eventually move to autonomy when regulations allow for uncrewed air taxi service. Airbus Image

Airbus is seeking to certify its CityAirbus NextGen four-seat eVTOL by 2025 as a piloted vehicle, eventually moving to autonomy when regulations allow for uncrewed air taxi service. Boeing, on the other hand, has partnered with Wisk Aero, which is developing an autonomous eVTOL from the start.

Speaking recently at the Vertical Flight Society’s (VFS) eVTOL Symposium in Mesa, Arizona, Airbus head of urban air mobility (UAM) Joerg Mueller said automated eVTOLs are “about optimizing missions and operations to the benefit of mission cost … and last, but not least, providing new mission capabilities.”

Referring to Wisk’s sixth-generation four-seat aircraft, an evolution of Wisk’s first five eVTOL prototypes, Boeing director of autonomous systems regulatory affairs Ben Ivers said, “This concept of operations really focuses on uncrewed urban air mobility. It’s focused on introducing this platform into an environment where the vehicles are not piloted by a human onboard the aircraft, but piloted by a multi-vehicle supervisor on the ground, ferrying people in dense urban areas.”

Boeing revealed an investment of $450 million in Wisk in January 2022, committing to partnering with the California advanced air mobility company to bring an autonomous eVTOL to market. There is not a specific timeline for starting commercial service, but Wisk has previously indicated it is aiming to gain certification for its aircraft from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by the end of this decade. 

Wisk chief financial officer Tyler Painter, also speaking at the VFS symposium, said that “beyond the financial and capital commitments, Boeing has brought tremendous resources.”

Airbus
Joerg Mueller, Airbus head of urban air mobility, spoke at the Vertical Flight Society’s eVTOL Symposium on his company’s long-term goals in developing an autonomous eVTOL. Ken Swartz Image

Specifically, Boeing can assist Wisk in building aircraft with lightweight materials, he noted. “The weight of these vehicles is absolutely critical,” Painter said. “We want to put lightweight composite material throughout as many aspects of the vehicle as we can.”

He noted Boeing has used such materials on its aircraft. “We’ve been able to leverage all the work they’ve done on programs like the 787,” he said.

Painter conceded Wisk will have “to adjust and adapt as we move into the commercial path,” but this will not include using a pilot to guide the aircraft.

“We think autonomy is really important for scalability,” he added, meaning building enough aircraft at a fast enough pace and low enough cost to keep air taxi fares affordable for average consumers.

“Our goal is to make this an everyday flight for everyone,” Painter said. “We have to get to a per mile per seat cost that’s competitive with an Uber [car] today.”

A key reason why Wisk is moving straight to autonomous flight is the scalability issue. “Clearly, for initial operations, we understand that the piloted approach [by other eVTOL developers] is absolutely one that will be in the marketplace first,” Painter said. “We do think that ultimately, as [eVTOLs] become a more broadly adopted technology … scalability requires that you’re able to remove the pilot from the vehicle itself.”

Boeing
Ben Ivers, director of autonomous systems regulatory affairs at Boeing, discusses his company’s bid in the autonomous eVTOL sector through a partnership with Wisk Aero. Ken Swartz Image

It is also better for safety, he argued. “It’s on all of us to make sure we are designing and operating in the safest way possible,” Painter said. “That’s critical as we’re launching a new industry. We’re absolutely focused on [system] redundancies and being able to offer that safe environment for people. From a safety standpoint, autonomy is really important as you think about airspace integration. It’s important to have more predictability coming from these autonomous vehicles [versus piloted aircraft] throughout [flights in] congested areas.”

Mueller said Airbus will move “step by step” toward automated eVTOL flying. The initial objective is to reduce pilot workload via technologies developed in Airbus’s helicopter FlightLab.

“The first step is [enhancing] situational awareness [via cameras and sensors],” he explained. “Obviously, with new sensing capabilities, you can provide additional information to pilots to improve the safety of the flight.”

Airbus, Boeing and Wisk understand that regulators have to be assured that autonomous eVTOL flights will be safe.

“Obviously, the regulatory agencies play a key role [in approving uncrewed air taxis],” Boeing’s Ivers said. “In the U.S., [we’ve got] the FAA, NASA and others working to shape that regulatory environment, but international regulators are going to have to play a role as well. And frankly, harmonization [of autonomous eVTOL regulations across countries] is one of those things that we’ll all want to see because that’s the only way this industry will scale.”

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