By Elan Head

An award-winning journalist, Elan is also a commercial helicopter pilot and an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument ratings. Follow her on Twitter @elanhead


How Kitty Hawk plans to get pilots out of its electric air taxis

When developers of electric air taxis envision the long-term future of urban air mobility (UAM), human pilots generally aren’t part of it. While there is some safety rationale for this (pilot error being a leading cause of aviation accidents today) it’s mostly because pilots are expensive. According to a 2020 study by McKinsey & Company, the cost of a piloted UAM flight could be up to twice the cost of an autonomous one. Whether your goal is to make air taxis affordable for everyone or to deliver massive returns for investors — or both — pilots simply get in the way.

If the desirability of fully autonomous flight is universally recognized by UAM proponents, there’s less consensus on how to get there. Leading eVTOL developers including Archer, Beta, Joby, Lilium, Vertical Aerospace, and Volocopter have all concluded that onboard pilots will be essential for certification in the near term, which has led McKinsey to estimate demand for as many as 60,000 eVTOL pilots by 2028. But China’s EHang and the Boeing-Kitty Hawk joint venture Wisk have rejected that approach, choosing instead to pursue autonomous aircraft from the get-go. Now, Kitty Hawk has also ditched the idea of onboard pilots, opting to develop its winged Heaviside eVTOL as a remotely piloted aircraft.

Kitty Hawk Heaviside
Kitty Hawk revealed its single-seat Heaviside prototype in October 2019. The company is now developing a two-seat version as a fully electric air taxi. Kitty Hawk Photo

The California-based company’s change in strategy was first revealed last month in a Forbes article that highlighted its divisiveness. According to author Jeremy Bogaisky, disagreement over the new approach was one reason why Kitty Hawk fired the lead designer of Heaviside, Damon Vander Lind, who reportedly thought the strategy too risky.

Pessimism over the certification prospects for pilotless aircraft has driven turnover at Wisk, too. Archer chief operating officer Tom Muniz, in a declaration submitted as part of that company’s ongoing legal battle with Wisk, said he left his previous employer in late 2019 in part because “there was no clear path to certification” of autonomous eVTOL aircraft with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). “I had been working on autonomous aircraft at Wisk for almost 10 years, and I still couldn’t see the business case for Wisk’s vehicles,” he stated.

Yet Kitty Hawk (whose CEO Sebastian Thrun sits on the board of Wisk) contends that not only can it certify a remotely piloted, two-seat version of Heaviside for passenger flight, it can do so as early as 2024 or 2025 — on par with many of the first movers developing piloted eVTOL aircraft.

“We recognize that it’s aggressive, but we think that with the proper degree of focus it is achievable,” said Michael Huerta, a member of Kitty Hawk’s leadership team who previously served as the FAA’s administrator from 2013 to 2018. Kitty Hawk has already been flying its single-seat Heaviside prototype extensively, demonstrating hundreds of transitions between hovering and forward flight, as well as speeds of up to 180 miles per hour (290 km/h) and range of over 100 miles (160 km) on a single charge, the company claims.

According to Huerta, Kitty Hawk has been engaged in discussions with the FAA for “going on two years” and expects to make its type certificate application later this year. From there, he told, “we’re looking at a three-year timetable to obtain the type certification for the aircraft.”

Michael Huerta said that affordability will be key to public acceptance of eVTOL air taxis. “Our cost-per-mile focus is so obsessive [because] the public has a different view of technology that they can take advantage of, that they can see in their lives,” he said. Kitty Hawk Photo

Huerta conceded that there are “good reasons” for pursuing piloted eVTOL aircraft first, which can seem like “a lighter regulatory lift and something that could get them to market much more quickly.” And he acknowledged that relying on a remote pilot introduces additional layers of technical and system complexity, including “how you link that person to the aircraft, how you deal with questions like detect-and-avoid, and all the things that an onboard pilot would do for an aircraft.”

Nevertheless, he continued, “if our ultimate objective is to get to autonomous flight, our bet is that going first to a piloted aircraft, then to a remotely piloted aircraft, and then to full autonomy, will actually wind up taking longer than simply going first to remote piloting, which is a logical jumping-off point ultimately to get to full autonomy.”

According to Huerta, keeping a remote pilot in the loop for functions like interfacing with air traffic control will align with “the basic regulatory framework for aviation, versus if we were to go straight to autonomy, then you’re dealing with a situation of needing to come up with an entirely new framework for an operation that does not include a pilot.” Of course, keeping a human pilot in the loop also negates some of the cost savings of autonomous aircraft, but Kitty Hawk believes that it will eventually be able to realize efficiencies by having each pilot monitor multiple flights under a certification basis that has yet to be defined.

Rather than physically directing these flights, Huerta said Kitty Hawk’s pilots will act as supervisors of highly automated systems. “They’re there to monitor performance, to ensure that everything is proceeding as it should, and should a problem present itself, they’re there to intervene,” he explained. Huerta pointed to the certification of Garmin’s Autoland — which can automatically land select airplane models in the event of pilot incapacitation — as an indication that the FAA is increasingly willing to certify the types of autonomous systems that will be necessary to realize this vision.

But Huerta also admitted that Kitty Hawk is still figuring out just how this will all work. “These are the kinds of questions that we have been discussing with the [FAA] and we’ll continue to discuss with the agency, because we’re not going in there with a fixed mindset that this is exactly how we want our system to operate,” he said.

“We see it as an iterative process where we want to present concepts and ideas to [the FAA], we want them to react to them, and that then shapes our further development of what’s ultimately going to make its way into the [type certificate] application.”

Air Force Kitty Hawk exercise
Kitty Hawk began working with the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime program in March 2021 and conducted its first operational exercise with the Air Force in May. Kitty Hawk Photo

Meanwhile, Kitty Hawk is also working with the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime program to explore Heaviside’s remotely piloted and autonomous capabilities for dual military and commercial use cases. Kitty Hawk recently became the fourth eVTOL developer (along with Joby Aviation, Beta Technologies, and Lift Aircraft) to receive a military flight release through the program, a form of airworthiness approval that enables Air Force-directed flight testing.

As is true for all of the eVTOL developers participating in Agility Prime, data from that testing is expected to support FAA certification efforts. For Kitty Hawk, testing with NASA and the Air Force in Ohio will also help “work out the bugs” of its remotely piloted model before moving into dense urban environments, Huerta noted. Although Kitty Hawk is “in conversations with a number of cities,” he said, the company has yet to confirm its commercial launch markets.

Should Kitty Hawk succeed in certifying a two-seat version of Heaviside as a remotely piloted air taxi, the company believes it can offer an urban transportation service for just $1 per passenger-mile — well below the $3 per passenger-mile that Joby is targeting for its five-seat air taxi by 2026. “We want to be very careful that any kind of service we offer is accessible to everyone,” stressed Shernaz Daver, a Kitty Hawk senior advisor. Whereas first-generation piloted eVTOL air taxis are likely to serve as “helicopter replacements,” she said, “we really view ourselves as being the accessible, remote-piloted, affordable aircraft.”

Despite the well documented turmoil at the company — which includes allegations of sexism and a toxic work culture — as well as the larger industry momentum toward piloted aircraft, Kitty Hawk is confident it can attract the people it needs to execute its vision. The company recently made a high-profile hire in Chris Anderson, bringing on the 3D Robotics co-founder and former Wired editor-in-chief as its new chief operating officer. Daver and Huerta said the company’s Silicon Valley location and established track record in eVTOL development are magnets for talent — and suggested that the company’s audacious plans might have an appeal of their own.

“Just talk to any of our engineering leads or any of our technical staff, and they love the vision,” Huerta said. “Clearly it’s a competitive market out there, but when people have choices, oftentimes they’re going to go for the incredible vision.”

“The riskiest vision,” Daver added.

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