Skyryse deal with Air Methods aims to bring FlightOS fly-by-wire tech to HEMS

Avatar for Ben ForrestBy Ben Forrest | May 4, 2022

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 52 seconds.

Around two years after Mark Groden created the transportation start-up Skyryse, he partnered with a small town in northern California to launch a prototype of FlightOS, the program he hoped would become the world’s first universal flight deck and operating system.

The Robinson R66 will be the first FlightOS platform to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Skyryse Image
The Robinson R66 will be the first FlightOS platform to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Skyryse Image

Those early missions taught Groden and his team the intricacies of helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) flying, and they were crucial to the evolution of FlightOS, an aircraft-agnostic fly-by-wire system that aims to make flying as simple as driving a car.

“We learned an awful lot about how important it is to get these folks to scenes of emergencies quickly and safely,” Groden told Vertical. “There are a lot of challenges there. It’s a very dynamic environment, extremely high cognitive load on the pilot, and we believe that FlightOS is going to make a significant impact.”

Jump forward to spring 2022, and those lessons continue to pay dividends.

On April 28, Skyryse announced a landmark agreement with Air Methods, the world’s largest air medical operator, to retrofit more than 400 medical aircraft with an updated version of FlightOS.

Skyryse plans to integrate FlightOS into Air Methods’ fleet of single-engine rotorcraft, including the Airbus Helicopters EC130 and AS350, and the Bell 407.

The company has also agreed to implement the system on Air Methods Pilatus PC-12 fixed-wing aircraft.

“We’re extremely excited,” Groden said. “It definitely hits home for us, and it’s a big part of why I founded this company — to help empower folks for missions like these. At the end of the day, first responders and Air Methods teams are all about public safety.”

FlightOS is an integrated hardware and software stack designed to replace complex manual flight control systems with a much simpler interface.

It also automates some of the tasks normally required of a pilot, and is designed to protect pilots from exiting the flight envelope, maintaining stability even during engine failure and autorotation.

“We are always looking for ways to make rotor- and fixed-wing flight safer,” said JaeLynn Williams, CEO of Air Methods, in a statement. “Skyryse is a cutting-edge technology that will drive a step change in the safety of rotor- and fixed-wing flight not only for Air Methods, but for our customers and the entire HEMS industry.”

Despite the high-profile announcement, Skyryse is tight-lipped about the timeline for rolling out FlightOS in the Air Methods fleet. 

Mark Groden, CEO of Skyryse. Skyryse Photo
Mark Groden, CEO of Skyryse. Skyryse Photo

Groden said work is already underway to “support integration” into the Air Methods fleet, but he wouldn’t comment about a target completion date.

Skyryse expects U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification on the first FlightOS platform — the Robinson R66 helicopter — and efforts are underway to certify the system on other models.

“We will be coming back in the not-too-distant future with a timeline,” Groden said. “We are building the capability to certify many platforms in parallel.”

The company is also keeping details of the updated FlightOS interface under wraps, though Groden confirmed it will no longer be controlled with iPads.

“It will have touch interfaces, and it will have a sidestick inceptor,” he said. “That’s about as much as I can say right now. Think of a Tesla and imagine a cockpit looking more like that.”

In previous phases, FlightOS garnered attention through a series of online videos that showed people with no experience piloting a Robinson R66 after just 30 minutes of simulator training.

The most famous clip showed Emmy-winning actor Jon Hamm calmly flying — and landing — an R66 by making simple hand motions on an iPad running FlightOS.

Previous phases of development have seen people with no experience pilot an R66 after just 30 minutes of simulator training. Skyryse Photo
Previous phases of development have seen people with no experience pilot an R66 after just 30 minutes of simulator training. Skyryse Photo

“It’s not our suggestion, obviously, that [this] be all that’s necessary to fly a helicopter or to get a pilot’s license,” Groden said.

“But the point is, it’s that easy — that intuitive — and that’s not an accident. The final user interface … is going to be very elegant, very clean.”

The long-term goal at Skyryse is to completely standardize the flight deck, making it possible for pilots trained on FlightOS to fly any aircraft that runs FlightOS — both helicopters and fixed-wing — in the same way they can drive almost any car without special training.

But in the near term, the company’s focus is on improving safety for trained pilots by lightening their workloads, improving safety and helping them save lives in high-pressure situations.

“This is one of the most critical missions,” Groden said. “You’re always on the margin, it’s very challenging, you don’t have a lot of time.

“Balancing all those things simultaneously, especially in the case of low visibility flight conditions, is really hard, and these pilots are phenomenal at doing it, but it’s an ever-changing environment they’re managing through.

“We can deliver a tremendous amount of value in helping support them as they fly these missions … helping make it easier to stay within the safe flight envelope of the aircraft.”

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