Wisk Aero plans to bypass pilots with its two-seat electric air taxi, Cora, pursuing autonomous operations from launch.
“We’re going direct to autonomy,” Wisk CEO Gary Gysin confirmed in a recent interview with eVTOL.com. “At this point, we’re not announcing or talking about any piloted versions.”
The decision to develop the passenger-carrying Cora as a fully autonomous aircraft — generally expected to be more difficult to certify than piloted models — is a bold bet by Wisk, the joint venture between Boeing and Kitty Hawk Corporation created on July 1, 2019, and announced five months later.
Other eVTOL developers, such as Joby Aviation, are preparing to launch with piloted aircraft, even if they expect to transition to autonomous operations over time. But if Wisk is taking a gamble that regulators will approve autonomous air taxis in a timely fashion, the company is also doing what it can to stack the odds in its favor.
“There’s a large ecosystem of players that all have to come together to make this happen, so there’s still a lot of work to do,” Gysin said. “We’re very active and aggressively working with partnerships in the whole ecosystem [to go] straight to self-flying.”
According to chief marketing officer Becky Tanner, Wisk has a head start on the process with more than 1,000 unmanned test flights under its belt. “The Cora aircraft is definitely working,” she told eVTOL.com. “We’re learning and testing almost every single business day.”
That puts it well ahead of most air taxi startups, but the company — originally founded in 2010 as Zee Aero — has a long history by eVTOL standards. Supported by Google co-founder Larry Page, Zee Aero was absorbed by another Page-backed company, Kitty Hawk, in 2017.
As detailed in a recent Vertical Flight Society article, Zee Aero hovered its first, unmanned proof-of-concept aircraft in 2011. This was followed by other prototypes, including the single-seat Z-P2, which in August 2017 became the first manned eVTOL to demonstrate a “verti-circuit”: a vertical take-off, transition to and from wing-borne flight, and a vertical landing.
Cora — which features 12 independent lifting propellers for vertical flight, a 36-foot (11-meter) wing, and a rear pusher propeller for forward flight — was revealed in March 2018. Since then, according to the Vertical Flight Society, at least seven fully electric prototypes have been undergoing flight testing in California and New Zealand.
The government of the latter has given the company an especially warm reception, selecting what is now Wisk New Zealand (previously Zephyr Airworks) as the first partner for its Airspace Integration Trials Program, which aims to support testing and adoption of advanced unmanned aircraft.
While Boeing and Kitty Hawk announced their strategic partnership in general terms in June 2019, Wisk wasn’t officially unveiled until Dec. 2. The company now has 300 employees, and “since the spin-off, we’ve been hiring like crazy,” Gysin said. “We’re growing quite a bit, and have an aggressive hiring plan for this year as well.”
Gysin explained that Wisk is now completely separate from Kitty Hawk and its other eVTOL programs — including Flyer and Heaviside — although Kitty Hawk CEO Sebastian Thrun remains on Wisk’s board of directors.
Also on the board are Steve Nordlund, VP and general manager of Boeing’s future technologies division, Boeing NeXt, and Logan Jones, VP of the investment arm Boeing HorizonX. Gysin himself comes to the company from Liquid Robotics, a developer of autonomous marine vehicles that was acquired by Boeing in 2016.
A Boeing spokesperson wasn’t immediately available to comment, but Gysin told eVTOL.com it was fair to say that Cora’s advanced stage of development was a key factor behind the aerospace giant’s decision to partner with Kitty Hawk, and that Wisk represents a serious commitment by Boeing to bring an electric air taxi to market.
“[Boeing] is not just an investor; it is also a strategic partner,” he said. “There’s all sorts of different help they can provide to us: policies, certification, etc. [and] we have a master services agreement to engage in all sorts of different projects.”
The ultimate goal, Gysin said, is to provide an aircraft that can reduce a one- or two-hour ground commute in urban traffic to a pleasant 10- or 15-minute flight, “delivering everyday flight to everyone.”
Just as Wisk is placing its bets on full autonomy, it is also gambling that there will be a viable market for two-seat urban air mobility vehicles. As with the Joby S4, Uber has primarily been seeking four-passenger air taxis for its Elevate initiative, on the theory that ride pooling will be key to keeping pricing affordable.
Gysin pointed out, however, that Uber’s Elevate white paper cites an average load factor of 1.3 people for automobile trips of less than 100 miles (160 kilometers), with over 70 percent of all trips containing a single person. That bodes well for a two-seat vehicle with a projected range of 30 to 60 miles (48 to 96 km), especially if neither seat will be occupied by a pilot.
“A lot of times, people are on their own,” Gysin said, explaining that with a two-seat model, “you don’t have to wait to fill an aircraft. You are an on-demand type of service for somebody that needs to commute. That’s important — we think there is a sweet spot there.”
He added, however, that Wisk isn’t viewing the air taxi market as “either-or. There are going to be different segments of the market. There are going to be different routes. There are going to be different-sized aircraft.” As for whether Wisk will also be developing larger vehicles, Gysin said there is “nothing to announce or talk about right now, publicly.”
Gysin similarly had “nothing to announce right now” when asked whether Wisk would be partnering with Uber. (Boeing has already been named as an Uber Elevate vehicle partner through its subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, which has been developing a Passenger Air Vehicle concept for urban air mobility.)
He acknowledged, however, that Wisk will “absolutely” be partnering with companies that seek to offer air taxi services, and pointed out that Wisk already has such an agreement in place with Air New Zealand.
“If you think about what we do, we have an aircraft, and we can operate it, but everything else — the reservation system and direct customer engagement, that sort of thing — it’s [natural] to partner with somebody like an Air New Zealand,” he said. “They’ve done a fantastic job of integrating with the federal government, with the local governments and mayors and city councils in terms of where we’re going to fly [for] local tryouts in New Zealand.”
Those trials will be key not only for advancing Cora from a technology standpoint, but also for understanding what it will take to succeed with an autonomous air taxi.
“We’re really pushing the envelope and going straight to self-flying,” he said. “We really want to spend a lot of time understanding how people think about it. Then there are the noise aspects, all the different things that are important to actually make this successful in a larger context.”
Gysin declined to provide an estimate for when Cora might come to market. Perhaps drawing a lesson from Boeing’s recent woes with the 737 Max, he pointed out, “It doesn’t make the regulators very happy when vendors are out there saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to be certified in 2023 or 2025 or whatever, and we’re going to fly.’ Because until you’re there, you’re not there.”