Announced on Feb. 4, the MOU furthers New Zealand’s Airspace Integration Trial, which aims to support safe testing and development of advanced unmanned aircraft and accelerate their integration into the aviation system.
Wisk New Zealand — previously known as Zephyr Airworks — was named as the first industry partner for the trial last year. According to Wisk CEO Gary Gysin, the MOU provides the basis for moving forward with a formal planning process.
“We have concepts and ideas that we’ve been working with the New Zealand government, but now it’s time to formalize it into a working plan,” Gysin told eVTOL.com. “So we’ve been doing informal planning, but now we’re fully engaged with all levels of government to figure everything out.”
The trial will take place in the Canterbury region of New Zealand’s South Island, where Wisk has been flight testing its two-seat, fully electric Cora eVTOL since 2017. Gysin said the trial will involve “multiple” aircraft, although the exact number has yet to be determined.
The specific route or routes the aircraft will be flying also have yet to be determined, although “the use cases that we are discussing are quite interesting and ones that are what anybody in the UAM [urban air mobility] community would talk about in terms of solving congestion,” Gysin said. “It is a trial, but it’s [also] a real service that we are going to be running.”
He confirmed that the air taxis in the trial will navigate autonomously using waypoints, rather than being remotely piloted from the ground. However, a ground-based pilot will supervise each flight and be able to take control of the aircraft if necessary. “And then the passengers will be in constant contact with the ground — more from a comfort and trust perspective,” Gysin said. “So they’ll be able to talk to the ground pilots, et cetera, as they’re flying.”
According to Gysin, Wisk aims to have a detailed project plan in place and a certification basis established with the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority sometime this year. But there will be many other hurdles to clear before people are riding in self-flying Coras.
“We’re self-flying, so we obviously have to be able to reliably and safely detect targets that are in the air. So that’s one; two is we need to be able to integrate into the airspace,” Gysin said, noting that Wisk will be working closely on the project with New Zealand’s air navigation service provider, Airways.
He continued, “There is certification of the aircraft itself, obviously. There is certification of the operation, and then there’s certification of our manufacturing and production capabilities. And so all of those things have to happen.”
Gysin declined to commit to a timeline for the trial, saying that Wisk will instead let the regulator decide when Cora is “safe and certified” to fly. But he highlighted the New Zealand government’s strong support for the project and interest in “setting an example, if you will, for the global community.”
According to New Zealand Research, Science, and Innovation Minister Megan Woods, “The government sees great potential in the development of an innovative unmanned aircraft sector in New Zealand and we are in a prime position to work with globally leading companies here to safely test and go to market.
“As well as the economic and social benefits the growth of this industry offers, we also share Wisk’s vision of a greener, emission-free way for Kiwis and visitors to New Zealand to get around. Enabling the emergence of an entirely electric air taxi service is a natural fit with New Zealand’s zero-carbon goal by 2050,” she stated in a press release.
While New Zealand will be the first market for Wisk’s air taxis, Gysin said the company is “very much open to” conducting similar trials in other locations. He added that he expects the data gathered through the New Zealand trial to support certification efforts in the U.S. and Europe, too.
Wisk chief marketing officer Becky Tanner also pointed out that the New Zealand experience could help play a role in encouraging public acceptance of autonomous air taxis. “Being able to speak to stats in terms of number of routes run, how many different trips have been completed, the safety track record . . . that’s a key piece in terms of getting the public to understand and accept and then to desire the service coming to their local area,” she said.
This story has been updated with new information from Wisk.