The viability of autonomous operations is one of the key bets being made by developers of eVTOL and eSTOL aircraft, with companies weighing the case for one of three core options: piloted, remotely piloted, and fully autonomous flights. Participants in a November 10 webinar organized by Revolution Aero heard from aircraft developers debating the merits of these options and concluded that only time will tell which offers the best business case as new aircraft approach type certification and service entry.
Airflow founder and CEO Marc Ausman made the case for gradualism, explaining his company’s plan to start with piloted operations before continuing on a course toward autonomy. “We want to put a piloted aircraft in the field first, build a brand, learn about manufacturing, and collect a lot of data so that we can move on to autonomous operations when the regulations support that,” he explained.
In June, Airflow announced plans for a hybrid-electric, fixed-wing eSTOL aircraft that will operate from just 300 feet of runway to make so-called middle mile freight deliveries on routes of between 50 and 250 miles. It is aiming to achieve FAA Part 23 certification by the end of 2025.
While acknowledging the benefits of autonomous operations with regard to increased payload and reduced crew costs, Ausman said he and his colleagues are comfortable with their gradual approach. “No one company will have the advantages with autonomy, and it will be open to everyone when the time is right, but we believe that is quite a long way off,” he argued.
In his view, remotely piloted operations are not very attractive because they still mean having to pay a pilot; and he claimed that regulators will insist on having a strict one-pilot-per-flight ratio. “And initially, you will have to have more expensive systems on the aircraft because it will be required to have more redundancy,” he maintained.
That point was echoed by Luuk van Dijk, whose Switzerland-based company, Daedalean, is tapping its expertise in artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop autopilot technology to support fully autonomous operations. “I’m not convinced that remote piloting is an easy way out because if you lose command and control capability you are flying blind, so you will then need some type of autonomy if only to find the least bad place to land,” he stated. “We believe that by aiming for a higher class of [autonomous] systems, we can get a higher class of safety if we don’t compromise, and that’s what we think the public will and should demand.”
Wisk, the joint venture between Boeing and Kitty Hawk, is going straight to autonomous operations with its Cora eVTOL aircraft. CEO Gary Gysin said during the webinar that its latest full-scale prototype, which is the fifth iteration of the design, has logged more than 1,400 test flights without a safety incident.
“We think all the problems are solvable, and we can see that autonomy is already happening in the defense sector,” Gysin said. “This is more a question of building the case for autonomy in terms of public confidence and regulation than it is a technical problem. He insisted that the FAA is amenable to one pilot controlling more than one flight at a time while acknowledging that it may take several years to agree on the terms under which this is allowed.
The two-seat Cora is expected to operate autonomously on routes of up to around 60 miles. Wisk has yet to publish a timeline for type certification and service entry but is working closely with authorities in New Zealand and the U.S., and also with prospective early-adopter communities, including indigenous Maori tribes in New Zealand.
Elroy Air, which is developing an eVTOL aircraft called the Chaparral for freight services, is also pinning its business model on early acceptance of autonomous operations. It has been flying a full-scale demonstrator since 2019 and is looking to deliver a 300-pound payload and 300-mile range. What sets the company apart is its ambition to achieve full autonomy for all aspects of cargo handling as well as for flight operations.
“I think autonomy for air services will scale up faster than on-the-ground services such as taxis,” predicted CEO David Merrill. In his view, it will be cost-effective to operate autonomous eVTOL aircraft only for larger payloads than are currently being carried by early unmanned aircraft applications. “Single-parcel delivery drones will be challenged on value unless they are carrying very important loads such as blood for transfusion or other urgent medical payloads,” he concluded.