A New Way to Fly

For the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry to truly take off in a few years, not only do electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft have to be safe and efficient, but they also readily available for use, says Catherine MacGowan, Asia-Pacific Regional Director of Wisk Aero.

MacGowan envisions a future where flying quickly from point A to point B over heavily congested roads will simply involve ordering an autonomous eVTOL through a smartphone app, waiting a short while for it to arrive, and hopping in before being whisked away to one’s destination.

It is this future of self-flying eVTOLs that Wisk, a California-headquartered aerospace manufacturer, hopes to champion, and what will ultimately separate the company from the competition, MacGowan says. “Wisk’s eVTOL will be self-flying from the very start,” she says. “Some other companies will be bringing piloted or crewed aircraft to the market – but we believe that the market will move towards self-flying aircraft. Wisk is going to start there and we’re going to focus on the necessary systems, certification and safety to bring a self-flying aircraft to market.”

The latest and greatest

Wisk originally went by the name of Zee Aero, which was founded in 2010 with the help of Google’s Co-Founder Larry Page. The company then merged with American aircraft manufacturer Kitty Hawk in 2017, before rebranding as Cora in 2018. A year later, the company partnered with aircraft industry company Boeing prior to being separately spun off as Wisk Aero.

In October 2022, Wisk unveiled its latest self-flying air-taxi, called the Generation 6, which is essentially the sixth and latest version of its first eVTOL, which the company also names Cora. The bright yellow four-seat, 12-propeller aircraft will be able to fly distances of 144 km at speeds of 120 knots, and climb to altitudes of up to 4,000 feet above ground. The company is targeting a commercial launch in 2025.

MacGowan is especially excited about the Generation 6, as it is the version the company intends on bringing to the market. “This is the aircraft we’ll be certificating and what passengers will be traveling in; it is what people will see in the sky in their cities,” she says, noting how its latest eVTOL is, in many ways, a physical embodiment of the company’s efforts and growth over the past decade. “We’ve had five generations of Wisk prototype aircraft since 2010, so we’ve learned quite a lot about developing self-flying electric propulsion in vertical take-off and landing since then. There’s been a lot of innovation and learning that needed to be done – and a lot of patience,” adds MacGowan. “Our Generation 6 aircraft also shows how much we’ve matured as a company. We’ll be developing all the systems, structures and safety processes necessary to certify, produce and ultimately bring the product to market.”

Extending the reach

MacGowan, who has been with Wisk for just over a year, has been working hard alongside her team not only on the company’s Generation 6 eVTOL, but also on the operations needed to facilitate future AAM-related operations. “We are also looking at a fleet operation center, and how we’re going to integrate the center with vertiports,” she says. Since Wisk is planning on releasing an unmanned eVTOL, the most challenging aspect of the role has been determining how to best integrate eVTOLs within existing airspace, MacGowan explains. “It’s about looking at how self-flying aircraft are going to be operating inside controlled airspace alongside crewed aircraft. For example, we’ve been working with the New Zealand government on an airspace integration trials program and continue to work with governments, regulators and agencies to help develop the processes for airspace integration.”

As Asia-Pacific Regional Director, MacGowan also hopes to expand Wisk’s footprint within the region through her role. “We’ve had a presence within New Zealand for a long time, and now we have a relationship with Australia as well, which is really exciting,” she says. Indeed, the company has conducted test flights of its previous generation eVTOLs in both New Zealand and Australia, displayed its aircraft in Australia, and in June 2022, signed a memorandum of understanding with the local government of Queensland in a bid to one day roll out AAM operations within southeast Queensland. “We’re looking towards the future of the industry. We know this will be a global industry and Wisk will be a key part of this. So it’s important that we understand what’s happening in APAC, what the regulators and the population consider to be most important, and what role we will play in the future.”

Another obstacle MacGowan and her team – as well as the rest of the AAM industry – is facing is the need to attain eVTOL certification. This involves establishing a close and consistent working relationship with both local and international regulators, MacGowan points out. “As for Wisk, we’re dealing with the FAA and other regulators around the world, and helping them to understand our aircraft, how it will operate, and how we’ll be able to demonstrate compliance under the relevant conditions,” she says. “Our relationship with them is key to facilitating the certification process.”

Trusting in vertical thrust

Not only will the company need to convince regulators that its autonomous eVTOL is safe, but it will also need to convince the general public, who may have understandable reservations about setting foot in a novel, driverless, aerial vehicle. The more effective way of building trust means backing up claims with hard data, MacGowan says. “We know that we’ll have to illustrate this with data by engaging with the community, government and regulators,” she notes. “The public wants to understand in ‘real’ terms; terms that matter to the community in terms of the level of safety they can expect from flying in an unmanned eVTOL.”

Wisk is cognizant of these safety concerns and has designed its eVTOL in a way that will provide passengers with as much assurance as possible. The eVTOL itself is designed with fewer moving parts, fully redundant systems and no single point of failure. The aircraft will also utilize the same technology responsible for 93 percent of automated pilot functions on modern commercial flights, come with sensors to detect and avoid objects, and will run on software capable of making decisions in real-time.

According to an interview The Wall Street Journal conducted with Wisk’s Chief Executive Officer Gary Gysin in November 2022, though its aircraft will be unmanned, Gysin notes that all flights will be overseen and controlled by on-the-ground pilots, who will simultaneously be in touch with passengers and air traffic control. He adds that each seat will also come equipped with a screen that will show travellers their flight route and when they will arrive at their destination, and riders will be able to communicate with ground staff at any time at the push of a button. “We have to ensure that the aircraft’s design and supporting systems are designed to a very high degree of safety,” MacGowan emphasizes. “We completely understand that it will be a big hurdle for people to consider flying in a self-flying aircraft. We have to help people understand how our aircraft is going to operate, as well as why it’ll be safe and why it can be trusted.”

A connected future

The next few years will prove to be pivotal for both Wisk to get eVTOLs up in the air. MacGowan looks forward to seeing how the company’s aircraft will integrate within existing transport networks and offer individuals an additional option to get in and around cities. “I’m really excited about the prospect of an integrated transport ecosystem in the future. As cities plan their future, they have the opportunity to connect mass transit with micro mobility, active mobility, and soon, advanced air mobility like Wisk’s air taxi,” she says.

After all, she says the AAM sector ultimately strives to not only decrease traveling times, but to also reduce carbon emissions and congestion within cities. “EVTOLs will provide the population with a range of transport options, especially ones that support decarbonization, and enable people to get where they need to be with more predictability and less congestion,” she concludes. “It’s the bringing together of different transport systems in the future that will really benefit communities.”

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