By Gerrard Cowan

Gerrard Cowan is a freelance journalist who specializes in finance and defense. Follow him on Twitter @gerrardcowan


Wisk’s Dan Dalton on the company’s vision for UAM

Wisk has achieved a number of milestones over the past decade, notably the first flight of an all-electric, autonomous eVTOL aircraft designed for passenger use in the United States. The company is now looking to the future, partnering with a range of other organizations in the public and private sectors.

Wisk Cora eVTOL
Dan Dalton, Wisk’s vice president of global partnerships, said the company has come to terms with the fact that it’s not going to be the first to market with an eVTOL because the company is focused on developing an autonomous aircraft. Wisk Image

The company was launched in 2010, originally known Zee.Aero, before merging with the Kitty Hawk Corporation. The aircraft and team were subsequently spun out to form Wisk, with an investment from Boeing.

Along with its in-house research and development, the company has also developed partnerships with a number of private and government organizations. For instance, in May, the manufacturer announced a deal with Blade Urban Air Mobility, under which it will provide Blade with up to 30 of its eVTOL aircraft.

The company is also participating in NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) National Campaign, which will look to integrate air taxis and similar concepts into the U.S. national airspace system. Additionally, Wisk was selected by the New Zealand government as the first partner in the country’s Airspace Integration Trials Programme, which will see Cora take part in a trial in Canterbury. Wisk has had a long-term presence in New Zealand, along with its California base.

We spoke with Dan Dalton, Wisk’s vice president of global partnerships, about the manufacturer’s plans for the coming years and its vision for the future development of urban air mobility.

Wisk Dan Dalton
Dan Dalton is Wisk’s vice president of global partnerships. Wisk Image Wisk is working to develop a fully autonomous platform. What is the timeframe for this?

Dan Dalton: We recognize we’re not going to be the first to market [with an eVTOL], because we’re developing this self-flying capability. We do look forward to being the first to bring a fully autonomous passenger-carrying aircraft to market.

That being said, we appreciate that self-flying aircraft is a new concept for everyone, including the regulator. That’s why we don’t really talk about a timeline because there are many other stakeholders involved in the certification of this aircraft system, and we want to make sure we’re not putting unnecessary pressure on any of our partners, including the regulators. 

A lot of our peers and competitors talk about an entry into service as early as 2024. I personally am a little bit skeptical on that, just having seen how the regulators looked at the industry and some of the challenges that we’re seeing, including things like battery certification.

And it’s not just the regulators. It’s making sure that we have everything from ground infrastructure to ensuring that the customers actually accept the safety and reliability of these aircraft. So, there’s a lot of work that has to be done. What eVTOL use cases have the most potential from your perspective?

Dan Dalton: While the use cases are getting pretty well defined for the initial entry in service, I’m super excited for what the “out-year” use cases look like. OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] provide these tools for a creative mind to start thinking about creative use cases. I’m really excited to see how folks are looking to use these aircraft in the coming decades.

But for this decade, it’s basically falling into two buckets: passenger carriage or cargo carriage — or a mix of both for some — and you’re looking at intercity versus intracity. We think there’s plenty of space for a multitude of players. But for us, our business model and research has indicated that moving folks across the city is the real “sweet spot,” along with helping folks travel from the outskirts or the suburbs of the city to the center of the city. That’s where Wisk is kind of focusing right now for our next-generation aircraft. Wisk is backed by Boeing and Kitty Hawk. What advantages does this provide?

Dan Dalton: The great thing is, especially when you look at Boeing, they’re not only an investor but strategic partners, and have really focused on making Wisk successful as their major player in the AAM space. The depth and the breadth of technical collaboration and leadership that happens between our two companies, our joint regulatory engagement, and the fact that Boeing has dozens of aircraft that have been FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] type-certificated, it only helps in the development of our aircraft.

In addition, we benefit from their ties to the ecosystem in technology investment and their reach globally, not to mention the focus that they have on sustainable aviation. It’s a huge accelerator and force multiplier. What benefits are you seeing from your work with NASA?

Dan Dalton: NASA is a critical partner for two key reasons. First of all, they’re a preeminent scientific and R&D [research and development] institution in the field of aeronautics. So, when it comes to research and development, they’re a fantastic partner.

The second big reason that they’re great as a strategic partner is their deep collaboration with the FAA in the field of AAM. They’re tied at the hip as it relates to figuring out how to deploy AAM in the U.S. So having FAA people embedded in the work that we do with NASA helps the regulator to see our technology maturation efforts. That honestly is an unparalleled strategic advantage — not just for Wisk but for the U.S. in driving that thought leadership in autonomous aviation. What is the status of the New Zealand trials?

Dan Dalton: As far as we can tell, this will be the first time that an uncrewed aircraft will be flown in civil, controlled airspace beyond visual line of sight in and among other piloted aircraft.  

It’s pretty exciting, but obviously we’re focused on making sure that it’s safe and that the technology maturation is keeping apace as they build a multiphased approach to executing this program. We’re in the first phase of that now.

But the great thing is it provides us with lessons learnt that we can then share with other regulators about how to integrate these uncrewed aircraft into controlled airspace, which is kind of a big moment for the industry as it relates to autonomous aviation. There’s been a lot of “sterilized” demonstration projects, on a military base or in the middle of nowhere in a field. But there have been very few, if any, demonstrations of an uncrewed aircraft operating among other aircraft.

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