If you’re one of the 600,000-plus aviation enthusiasts attending EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, this week, you may have witnessed something that has never been seen before.
At the air show Wednesday, Wisk Aero, the air taxi arm of Boeing, flew what it says is the world’s first public demonstration of a fully autonomous, fixed-wing, electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxi. The demo featured Wisk’s Generation 5 technology demonstrator, wowing a crowd of hundreds as it hovered, spun, and zipped through the air in near silence.
The multitransition flight showed off the air taxi’s transition capabilities, as it switched between hover and wing-borne flight four times and made two low passes. The eVTOL also completed an array of maneuvers, including 360-degree turns in place.
“For the first time, we have publicly demonstrated fully autonomous flight, conducted by an all-electric, fly-by-wire, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft,” said Jim Tighe, chief technology officer of Wisk. “There was no pilot on board, no pilot controls in the aircraft, and no stick-and-rudder on the ground. The entire flight was operated with the push of a button.”
Wisk’s Gen 5, a demonstrator, will never enter service. But it has completed more than 1,300 test flights and is informing development of the company’s Generation 6, the model it hopes to certify for commercial flights with the FAA.
Wednesday’s flight, however, was more about validating its technology with the public.
“This demonstration showcases the state of readiness for autonomous technology and electric propulsion,” said Brian Yutko, CEO of Wisk. “Combined with the progress we’re making on type certification for our sixth generation air taxi, we’re proving that autonomy is possible and it’s happening today.”
Wisk’s Rapid Ascent
Formed out of a strategic partnership between Boeing and Google co-founder Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk Corp., Wisk didn’t get its start until 2019, a year after rival Archer Aviation. Its other key competitors, Joby Aviation and Lilium, were founded in 2009 and 2015, respectively. Volocopter, a leader in the European market, launched in 2011.
After just a few short years of operation, Wisk already has plans to fly in Japan, Australia, and Long Beach, California. It also has an agreement in place with Blade Air Mobility to operate air taxi routes across Blade’s U.S. network. A vertiport integration agreement with Skyports, which seeks to establish advanced air mobility (AAM) infrastructure, complements those partnerships.
According to Yutko, Wisk expects to enter service by the end of the decade. So far, it has submitted a type certification application to the FAA, the first step in validating its design. The company has also filed G-1 and G-2 issue papers, which respectively cover the Gen 6 aircraft’s certification basis and means of compliance.
The all-electric Gen 6 was first unveiled in October and is powered by 12 propellers, six each on the front and back of its fixed wings. When transitioning from vertical lift to cruise, the front propellers tilt forward to generate added thrust for wing-borne flight, while the back propellers stall and lock into place. Before descent, the propellers reenter their original configuration.
With four seats and no onboard pilot, the eVTOL can carry up to four passengers and their belongings. It has a range of 90 sm (78 nm) with reserves and cruises at 110-120 knots, with a charge time of only 15 minutes.
In hopes of competing with ground-based rideshare services like Uber and Lift, Wisk is targeting a per-mile price of just $3 per passenger. An Uber ride costs between $1 and $2 per mile per passenger before fees, and Lyft is considered the pricier option of the two.
How Wisk Flies Itself
If eVTOL aircraft are a novel technology, fully autonomous flight is a black box. Most commercial airliners use some autonomous technology. But the prospect of removing the pilot from the cockpit entirely is foreign.
Wisk plans to do so by leveraging much of the autonomous tech common to commercial flight, such as an autopilot, precision navigation, and flight management systems. But the company will mix in elements frequently seen in autonomous drones, such as sensors, detect-and-avoid capabilities, and proprietary, logic-driven decision-making software.
Wisk’s autonomous capabilities will even extend to the ground. Though vertiport crews are expected to visually inspect each aircraft before flight, the air taxi conducts preflight inspections all by itself, ensuring its own power supply, avionics, controls, motors, sensors, seat belts, and more are ready for launch.
When the autonomous inspection is complete, the aircraft alerts a crew of multivehicle supervisors at a ground-based fleet operations center. A supervisor then confirms the departure with air traffic control, initiating takeoff with the press of a button. A fleet manager monitors and tracks the fleet, conducting predeparture planning, scheduling, and dispatching.
Once in the air, the Gen 6 continues to inspect itself while a supervisor continuously monitors the flight. But the human pilot in command won’t have much to do—the air taxi navigates fully autonomously, able to identify hazards in the air or on the ground and adjust its flight path accordingly.
Supervisors can view these maneuvers in real time and communicate them to air traffic control. They can also give commands to the aircraft themselves, modifying the flight path in response to ATC requests, guiding it to an alternate landing spot or even initiating an immediate emergency landing.
Passengers are able to keep track of flight path modifications on a seatback screen. While in transit, they maintain communication with a Wisk hospitality manager, who can provide live updates, safety information, and instructions.
As the air taxi prepares to land, precision navigation software and onboard and ground sensors guide it to its final destination, where it confirms the area is clear and begins its descent. The supervisor is notified when the eVTOL makes its final approach and coordinates with ATC and the vertiport. At the same time, the autonomous system relays information, such as the health of the aircraft, its charging status, and passenger arrival needs.
Wisk’s use of autonomous technology undoubtedly presents some unique opportunities: a way to avoid the pilot shortage, reduce operating costs, and increase space for passengers to name a few.
But it could also hamper the company’s entry into service, which is already expected to come several years after its competitors. Wisk will go through the same FAA certification process as Archer, Joby, and Lilium. But the novelty of its technology may make it more challenging to develop a type-conforming design that lives up to the agency’s safety standards.
The FAA has certified some automated systems, such as autopilots and autothrottles, as well as autonomous aircraft like drones, which Wisk believes laid the foundation for certifying a fully autonomous passenger aircraft. But those technologies are far more proven than the Gen 6. And as aviators know by now, the FAA takes a deliberate approach when it comes to novel aircraft.