The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Boeing and Wisk Issue Concept of Operations for Urban Air Mobility

The Boeing-backed autonomous eVTOL aircraft developer Wisk this week released a concept of operations that provides a roadmap for the adoption of an urban air mobility (UAM) ecosystem with pilotless air taxis. 

Wisk, which was founded in 2019 as a partnership between Boeing and Kittyhawk, is developing a fully autonomous eVTOL air taxi designed to carry up to four passengers on short trips of up to 25 miles (40 kilometers). The California-based company has conducted extensive flight tests with the unpiloted, two-seat eVTOL called Cora, its fifth-generation prototype, and it plans to reveal its sixth-generation aircraft in October. 

While Wisk has yet to provide a timeline for type certification or entry into commercial service, it has now spelled out in detail its approach to bringing autonomous eVTOL air taxis to market. And though the 64-page concept of operations (ConOps) published on September 20 is presented in the context of the U.S. National Airspace System, the document could serve as a blueprint for the global adoption of urban air mobility, according to Wisk. 

“We’re working to enable a future of aerospace that is safe, sustainable, and at scale," said Brian Yutko, Boeing’s vice president and chief engineer for sustainability and future mobility. "Uncrewed operations will be fundamental to realizing that vision, and we have to exceed the current safety standards for the air transportation system.”

Wisk’s ConOps describes how the UAM industry will need to engage with regulators, communities, and the workforce to safely and effectively integrate unpiloted air taxis into the National Airspace System by 2030. 

“The vision we have outlined is the result of many years of collaboration with Boeing, the FAA, NASA, and key industry stakeholders,” said Wisk CEO Gary Gysin. “As a result, this document offers the most comprehensive framework proposed to date with a vision for enabling UAM in the national airspace.” 

The document explains that existing regulations will need to be modified to enable UAM operations, particularly regarding autonomous aircraft and other novel technologies such as electric distributed propulsion systems. 

The role of pilots will also change. Rather than having one or two of them on board, pilots will serve as “multi-vehicle operators” who remotely manage up to three simultaneous flights from an operations center on the ground, according to the ConOps. Their role will be supervisory in nature; because the aircraft fly autonomously, multi-vehicle operators will take control only if an intervention is required to override the automated behaviors of an aircraft, such as during an emergency or other contingency. 

However, Wisk’s ConOps states that UAM vehicles should have sufficient onboard automation to safely handle any contingency scenarios—such as a mechanical failure, loss of communications, or loss of GPS signal—without human intervention. Preprogrammed emergency and contingency procedures will allow the aircraft to divert its course or land prematurely if necessary. 

Multi-vehicle operators will still be responsible for establishing two-way voice communications with air traffic controllers, but the automation of some basic communication functions will streamline their activities. They will also be responsible for verifying flight plans and trajectories before and during every flight to avoid hazardous conditions, such as bad weather, air traffic, and other obstacles. However, the aircraft’s highly automated flight control systems will handle navigation and hazard avoidance. Preplanned and dedicated UAM flight routes, though not essential, would contribute to greater operational efficiency and reduce the need for interventions due to conflicts with air traffic control. 

Wisk’s ConOps also describes what sort of infrastructure will be necessary for communities to effectively utilize UAM, such as the fleet operations centers and vertiports where the aircraft will take off and land. The UAM vertiports, whether they be newly constructed facilities or repurposed existing helipads and airports, will need to provide charging stations for electric aircraft and security checkpoints for passengers, as well as maintenance personnel. Smaller so-called vertistops, much like so-called helistops for helicopters, can be located on rooftops of buildings or parking garages to help meet the demand in crowded city centers, the ConOps states.

“The UAM industry will need to work with states, cities, and economic development organizations to effectively evaluate, plan, and implement the changes that will be required to safely and seamlessly integrate UAM into the airspace. Ultimately, public acceptance of uncrewed UAM operations will be crucial to scaling the market,” the document states.

Looking beyond what’s required to initiate and scale UAM services, the ConOps also paints a picture of what the day-to-day business operations and passenger journeys will entail. According to the document, air taxi passengers will book flights through an online application that also provides the option for additional ground transportation as needed to carry passengers to and from vertiports. Once they arrive at the vertiport, they will go through a security checkpoint and weight checks before being escorted to the aircraft. 

On the aircraft, passengers will be required to remain seated at all times. In case of an emergency, such as a medical issue, passengers will be able to push a button that connects them to remote hospitality personnel. If necessary, this feature can be used to trigger contingency or emergency scenarios that would require the aircraft to land early. 

For the UAM ecosystem to work, the general public “will need to be convinced that traveling on UAM aircraft will be safe, reliable, and save them time and money,” the ConOps states. 

“With collaboration, engineering excellence, and a safety mindset, Boeing and Wisk, alongside their respective partners, intend to lead the advancement of the UAM industry to achieve a future state where safe and affordable everyday flight can be available to everyone.”