The technology startup Skyryse has announced a new flight automation system that could potentially be integrated into a wide variety of aircraft — from conventional helicopters and airplanes to next-generation electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) models.
Called FlightOS, the system uses on-board computers to control all aspects of the flight envelope, leveraging external radar and sensors for real-time situational awareness. The pilot commands the aircraft’s fly-by-wire flight controls using a touchscreen tablet or joystick. The system ensures that the aircraft remains within its operating limits, and can take over in the event of an emergency such as engine failure, the company said.
The announcement follows Skyryse’s December 2019 reveal of “Luna,” a Robinson R44 helicopter retrofitted with the company’s autonomy technology. With the launch of FlightOS, the Southern California-based startup shared a new video that shows two of its non-pilot employees learning how to control the R44 using a tablet.
“Our goal at Skyryse is to bring aircraft safety and capabilities into the 21st century with advanced technologies to empower every pilot to fly as safely as the most experienced pilots in the world,” stated Mark Groden, Skyryse’s founder and CEO, in a press release.
“We want every pilot to learn to fly any aircraft, rotorcraft or fixed-wing, and make it as easy as learning to drive. Our system allows the pilot to focus on where you want to go and what you want to do, while our on-board systems handle the aircraft for them. We want to see more men and women in the cockpit, with more capability, and flying safer than ever before.”
Skyryse initially launched with the objective of offering large-scale urban air mobility services — the same goal that Uber is chasing with its Elevate initiative. In fact, the company operated a limited part 135 air taxi service as a trial last summer, using conventional helicopters to move more than 1,000 passengers around the greater Los Angeles area, Groden recently told Vertiflite.
In the context of urban air mobility, Skyryse framed autonomy as essential to enabling less experienced pilots to operate at a high level of safety. The company still believes that to be the case, but with the launch of FlightOS, it is shifting its own focus away from operations as it pursues commercialization of the technology.
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Beyond urban air mobility, Skyryse suggests that its autonomy technology could help lower-time pilots safely execute some missions — such as firefighting and air medical operations — that have traditionally required thousands of hours of flight experience. FlightOS could also help increase the safety of general aviation operations in poor weather conditions, the company said.
Skyryse previously told Vertical that its certification program is staged with multiple supplemental type certificates (STCs), starting with certifying the underlying fly-by-wire infrastructure necessary to implement the flight task automation system. The dynamic flight task automation is being developed to full Design Assurance Level (DAL)-A, with loss of automation assessed to be extremely improbable at less than one event in a billion flight hours (10-9).
The company said it is broadly following certification guidelines established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for part 27 normal category rotorcraft. However, its plan submitted to the FAA follows design assurance practices common on part 25 transport category airplanes, specifically Aerospace Recommended Practice 4754 DAL-A and appropriate assurance levels equipment and software.
“We believe that these standards are backed with a wider and deeper field experience in automation of flight than found in pure rotorcraft standards,” Skyryse told Vertical. “Given the volume of operations we are designing for, we believe that we owe it to the communities and the public we serve to aim for a much higher standard.”
Skyryse has attracted talent from a number of legacy aerospace companies, including chief technology officer Gonzalo Rey, who previously held that position at Moog. The company has raised $38 million from investors including Venrock, Eclipse Ventures, Fontinalis, Stanford University, and Ford Motor Company executive chairman Bill Ford.
However, it’s not the only company developing this type of technology. Notably, the helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky has been refining its Matrix autonomy technology since 2013 on the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), a modified S-76B. In January of this year, the company announced an agreement with the aerial firefighting specialist Erickson to integrate Matrix technology into the S-64 Air Crane helicopter for a demonstration next year.