Boeing’s Wisk goes full robot with its electric air taxi while competitors stick with human pilots


DDozens of companies are developing electric air taxis designed to take off and land vertically so they can hopscotch passengers through crowded urban areas. All hope that one day computers will pilot them, eliminating the pilots and their salaries and freeing up their seats to carry another paying passenger. Most air taxi developers are betting that safety regulators will be more comfortable approving their cutting-edge planes if there’s a pilot in the cockpit, at least to start with.

Boeing
BA
– controlled Wisk Aero goes in the opposite direction. It is sticking to an ambitious plan to become self-sufficient from the start, even as it unveiled the design of a larger four-seater plane on Monday that could theoretically accommodate a pilot.

Jonathan Lovegren, head of autonomy efforts at Wisk, says they can make a better autonomous plane if it’s designed for a robot pilot from the start, and it’s “misleading” to other companies to say it will be simple to just pull the human pilot out of his plane somewhere down the line. “The reality is that there is a completely different safety analysis and design assurance process,” Lovegren said. Forbes. “It’s a really different plane.”

Wisk acknowledges that it will take longer to get to market. Competitors Joby Aviation and Archer Aviation are targeting a 2024 launch. Wisk does not publicly share its target date, but the Mountain View, Calif.-based company believes the new aircraft, which it has not yet begun testing in flight, will be carrying passengers before the end of the decade.

Wisk expects its air taxi to fly autonomously along pre-planned flight routes under the supervision of an employee at a ground control station who will oversee up to three planes simultaneously. Its sixth-generation air taxis, which it says will be able to fly 90 miles with safety reserves at a cruising speed of around 140 mph, will be equipped with sensors to detect large birds, aircraft or other hazards and will automatically adjust course to avoid them. The human supervisor will be able to overrule an air taxi in an emergency or divert it to landing, but they won’t have a joystick to fly it manually.

With all the well-publicized struggles Tesla
TSLA
and other automakers have had to perfect self-driving cars, Wisk is adamant that it’s not using artificial intelligence to create a ‘black box’ version of a human pilot – Federal Aviation Administration n is not prepared to rate software where there isn’t a predictable output for every input. “The reality is, there’s no way to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt to the FAA that they’re going to do the right thing all the time,” Lovegren says of AI-based systems .

Around 90% of the tasks on an airliner are already handled by the autopilot and other computerized systems. Lovegren says Wisk is simply building on this already proven technology to create a rules-based framework to automate the vast majority of the rest.

This includes responses to emergency situations, in which pilots currently consult manuals with checklists that detail how to react step by step.

“Most are procedural,” says Lovegren. “It’s very well understood.”

It’s a reasonable approach to automating checklists and “a lot of the toggling of buttons and switches,” says Ella Atkins, an autonomous systems researcher who leads Virginia Tech’s aerospace and ocean engineering department. The problem will be in the rare situation where there is an emergency where the system cannot match a checklist and the supervisor will have to intervene, she says.

“A human on the ground who manages several planes will be much slower to react, to understand the situation on this plane in real time, ”says Atkins. And they may not have better situational awareness than the aircraft software, because they will only see the same data and video feed.

A dilemma for safety regulators is that it may not be fair to expect the average pilot aboard these new electric vertical take-off and landing (EVTOL) aircraft to be better able to handle an emergency.

For urban air taxi services to make a profit – and significantly reduce ground congestion – companies believe they will need to achieve economies of scale by flying hundreds of planes at a high rate in major urban areas. . This means that they will need a lot of pilots. In 2020, consultancy McKinsey estimated the industry could need 60,000 pilots by 2028 if they roll out as planned. They will have to recruit and train these pilots as airlines grapple with a shortage.

Airlines will be able to pay higher salaries to retain more experienced talent.

“These EVTOLs, they can’t have the best riders in the world,” Atkins says. “They won’t be that glider instructor who knows what to do when the engines fail.”

It’s one of the reasons Wisk would like to hand over the controls to a robot, and its competitors claim their pilots will be supported by highly automated flight control systems.

Ultimately, says Atkins, “It’s not necessarily less safe for Wisk or other companies to automate all checklists in a way that’s FAA certifiable and have a remote supervisor.” than having a [less] experienced pilot on board.

How the FAA will assess the safety of complicated software in air taxis is a matter of concern after the agency’s failure to pinpoint flaws in a flight-control system that contributed to two 737 MAX crashes in Boeing.

Observers have been warning for years that the agency needs more IT experts, whom it typically struggles to hire with Silicon Valley.

Wisk’s sixth-generation air taxi is a descendant of development work started in 2010 by billionaire Larry Page’s Zee.Aero and later a company called Kitty Hawk into which Zee.Aero was integrated. The program was created as a joint venture with Boeing in 2019; Kitty Hawk announced last month that it was closing, ending its efforts to bring a small, self-driving air taxi to market.

Wisk has been engaged in discussions with the FAA for years about how to prove the safety of autonomous aircraft. “They see us as, I think, setting the direction for a lot of things,” Lovegren says.

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