Boeing invests $450m in Wisk Aero air taxi venture

By Bjorn Fehrm

January 25, 2022, ©. Leeham News: Boeing and Wisk Aero yesterday had a media briefing on why Boeing is extending its investment in Wisk Aero with a further $450m.

The main technology is not the eVTOL aircraft. Wisk is just one of many upstarts that relies on batteries and multiple electrical propulsors to create a VTOL air taxi. It’s the pilotless operation that’s the key technology in the project. As perhaps the only VTOL company, Wisk goes directly to pilotless flight.

Brian Yutko, VP of Sustainability and Future Mobility at Boeing, explained: “The pilotless flight technology is of great interest to Boeing. It’s challenging technology, but it has a wide field of applications once mastered. We are not targeting our airliners but other civil and military applications. It’s an important driver for us in the continued support for our Wisk joint venture.”

Figure 1. The fifth-generation prototype Cora, with which flight tests are done in New Zeeland. Source: Wisk Aero.

A long term project

Wisk was founded in 2010 and later merged with Kitty Hawk, the eVTOL startup from Google founder Larry Page. Boeing stepped in 2019 with a 50% share in a spun-out Wisk Aero joint venture. The present investment is to develop a production-ready Wisk Aero aircraft and prepare this for mass manufacturing.

By keeping the project off Wall Street, it can work with a long-term view and is not forced to glitzy events where over-ambitious targets are communicated to please investors.

Pilotless for a safer flight

Pilotless operation has several advantages, according to Yutko:

  • “It’s safer. 80% of the accidents in Air Transport are because of pilot errors. With a certified autonomous system, this type of crashes will be minimized. It will take time to come to the safety level needed to get approval for autonomous flight, but once there, it will be safer than piloted flight.
  • It saves cost: To make future short-haul air transport available for everyone we need to reduce costs. The cost of a pilot is a big piece of the cost of air taxi services as the number of passengers over which to spread the cost is a fraction of regular air transport.”

Wisk’s CEO, Gary Gysin: “We know we won’t be first to the market with our aircraft. It doesn’t bother us. We have decided to go for the bigger challenge of pilotless operation. It will take time to get there, but it will be worth it. To master the challenge, we cooperate deeply with NASA for the technology and with the FAA to define certification rules. We are also working with the New Zeeland regulators, with whom we do the majority of our flight tests.

To date, we have flown 1,600 manned flights with our different prototypes, latest with our Cora fight generation prototype (Figure 1). The new investment is for our sixth-generation go-to-market aircraft, presently in development, and will prepare this for high volume manufacturing. Within five years of Certification, we intend to operate close to 14 million flights a year across 20 cities, transporting 40 million people with the time saving 20 to 30-minute flights needed in their everyday life.”

No aircraft presented

It was a very different press event, with the press release and discussions not focusing on an eVTOL machine with its speeds and feeds. In fact, no information was given around the coming sixth-generation aircraft, only that it will be pilotless and battery-based. Charging time for the fixed batteries will be 10 to 15 minutes, and standard local airport infrastructure will be used.

“With the abundance of local airports in the US, Europe, and Asia, we don’t see the need for new Heliports. We will engage with companies that build them if needed, but we feel it won’t be needed,” said Gysin.

The event was focused on the route to pilotless operation, how regulators will allow this to happen and what such technology enables for other markets. The path will be longer than most eVTOL projects, but once completed, it will enable a very different business model and wide future use of the technology.

30 Comments on “Boeing invests $450m in Wisk Aero air taxi venture

  1. I’d love to know what magical technology is being used to allow “charging time for the fixed batteries to be 10 to 15 minutes”.

    • No magic involved. For example, with a 350-kilowatt CD fast charger, the Hyundai Ioniq 5 can charge from 10 to 80% in 18 minutes. Some others are faster.

        • Regular fast charging for electric vehicles with todays battery technology does indeed shorten battery life. It needs to be a very rare thing. The other reason it would be undesirable is because of the intense demands on the supply network. BEV need to be plugged in during the day gently charging and even returning to the network. (unless nuclear were available)

          Whereas BEV probably will seldom use 10% of their capacity on a daily basis eVTOL will probably use more than 50% regularly on a flight.

          Battery usage will this be more severe. The Uber Elevate White paper noted that there would not be time to charge hence the solution is interchangeable battery packs that can charged optimally. That’s what volocopter is doing.

          Batteries are getting better and so is their life time and charge/discharge rate so we may get to the point 15 minute charging is not severely damaging to batteries but certainly not now.

  2. “It’s safer. 80% of the accidents in Air Transport are because of pilot errors“

    Sorry, basic assumption is flawed because all cases pilots preventing an accident are neglected.

    • Agreed.
      What would an autonomous vehicle have done in a “Sully-like” situation?
      What about the world-record glide made by TS236 to the Azores when the plane ran out of fuel?
      And then there’s the incredible saga of the Sioux City DC10.

      Somewhat of an imbalanced comparison.

      • The crew on TS236 made a lot of bad decision such as pumping their fuel from one side of the aircraft into side that had an engine supply line fuel leak thereby ensuring fuel depletion that lead to the glide. Of course they saved it at the last minute and were awarded a medal for performing so well in that aspect of the flight.

        • And in a “Sully-like” situation, the AV would have diagnosed the situation in a fraction of the time, including knowing immediately that Laguardia was in gliding range with an immediate turnback to the airport.

          • And if LaGuardia is closed due to another emergency? Will the AV then land on the Hudson?

          • What is surprising is that given the number of twin engine failures (bird strike, fuel depletion) that there is not a mandatory system in all regular scheduled certified aircraft that continuously computes glide to land solutions instantly available to the pilots from the moment after takeoff.

            At the minimum it would let the pilots know that a runway is not possible which would allow more time for planning a ditching.

            Besides alternate runways along the route plausible points for ditching (lakes, rivers) and possible agricultural fields will need to be part of this. Possibly even little used highways.

            This system could be autonomous but as I said I’m surprised such a system hasn’t been developed.

            It would have the same ‘ethical’ problems of automated vehicles but at the moment we leave those to pilots (such as avoiding or using a busy highway) and if we gave them timely alternatives we’d avoid the quandary.

          • The problem with glide computations is that the winds are not constant all the way to the ground. Glide rings are available on many flight displays, but they are constantly shifting because winds are so variable.

    • “It’s safer. 80% of the accidents in Air Transport are because of pilot errors“

      No mention in the article of those pesky “edge cases”, which in fact happen all the time.. also
      no mention on the restriction on *human autonomy* and ever-increasing technocratic control that’d be required to make this scheme work..

      Somebody’s smoking some Delusion-all, and it ain’t me.

  3. Sounds like a reasonale approach. But they are not the only ones working on autonomous flight, contrary, going on for decades, billions invested.

    “By keeping the project off Wall Street, it can work with a long-term view and is not forced to glitzy events where over-ambitious targets are communicated to please investors.”

    then..

    “Within five years of Certification, we intend to operate close to 14 million flights a year across 20 cities, transporting 40 million people with the time saving 20 to 30-minute flights needed in their everyday life.”

    This does sound a bit like the usual investor pleasing bravour, serious aeronautical guys/girls have learned to ignore.

    Next is the business case isn’t that solid, safety requirements remain inflexible and battery capacity didn’t leap forward after all.

    Then the search start for alternative market niches, noble aid flights into lonely places, delivering parcels, firefighting, defensive industry showing interest..

  4. Just another great example of the STUPIDITY of BA’s executive management these days! $450 million out the door in one slug, probably not to be recovered, while they : a) can’t get salable 787s out the door; and 2) continue to DITHER, right (?), on the NMA. I’ll use one of the younger generation’s acronyms: “SMH”! Please “Wisk” Calhoun and crowd away!

    • That nearly half-a-Billion dollars would’ve been
      much better invested on basics- like learning how to make safe aircraft, free of FOD, without QC issues
      (MAX, 787, KC-46A, 777-X), and treating their line
      workers and suppliers decently.. fundamentals.

      But no: “autonomous, battery-powered flying taxis!!!”

      sure, sure.. as BCA slowly implodes.

      • It is somewhat surprising how lacking in innovation Boeing became when you look at the fact that it took Elon Musk (an aerospace outsider) developed the fly back booster (something Wenrer von Braun wanted to do) and that it took a Google Billionaire Larry Page to basically invest a tiny amount of money in the Blackfly/Wisk oversized drone tech to show what might be possible.

  5. Another Boeing PR spin machine press release and throwing money down a rabbit hole. As a once insider I can attest to this throwing money at frivolous programs. (Connection by Boeing anyone) They make this sound like so wonderful with 10-15 minute recharge times and no pilot error vehicles…..really? 🤷‍♂️
    The FAA will have have much to say about these machines operating in class b airspace and safety risk mitigations. How’s the Starship and 777X programs progressing Boeing?

    • Well, at least BA have some of their troops in the door, at Wisk:

      Caryn Nightengale
      CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
      As CFO, Caryn brings a background in fiscal management, corporate development and investment banking to Wisk. Her focus throughout her career has been on leading companies through complex organizational transformation, especially in the startup and launch phases. Prior to joining Wisk, she was CFO for Liquid Robotics, an autonomous ocean robotics company. She oversaw the finance and accounting functions as well as the IT, contracts/legal, strategy, human resources and global trade controls departments. In prior positions, as director of corporate development at Boeing and as an investment banker at BMO Capital Marketshe, she worked closely with senior executive teams to develop, evaluate and execute growth strategies through acquisitions, divestitures, joint ventures, equity and venture investments.

      Jim Tighe
      CHIEF TECHNICAL OFFICER

      He was project engineer and flight director for most of the SpaceShipTwo program and had critical roles in Global Flyer, and other proprietary projects. He also worked in Boeing’s Commercial Airplane Group, working with the stability and control group for the 777-200/300ER programs, supporting wind tunnel tests, simulator development and analytics.

      Leon Villegas
      VICE PRESIDENT, PRODUCTION SYSTEM

      Before joining the Wisk team, Leon was senior manager on Boeing’s 777X Program, overseeing the deployment of the automated Wing Horizontal Build Line (HBL) for the new airliner. He also served as program senior manager for Boeing’s Freighter Conversions, leading a team to Launch the 737-800BCF Program.

      • @Frank

        Good grief, can’t this company bring in some young fresh talent and not used up recycled Boeing executives? Why do you think they left Boeing only to go to a young startup and reuse the same old tired methods from their previous employer.

  6. I can’t imagine how they think they can make a working product, let alone get it through the FAA. Google and Tesla have been trying to do this for automobiles for a decade, spending billions, and don’t have anything beyond test markets to show for it. The risk is higher in aviation.

  7. There is too much nonsense written over these types of technologies, a lot from not understanding what the technology can and cannot do, but also from not understanding the applications.
    First, there is no regulatory environment to operate these things commercially – regardless if they are autonomous cars, boats or aircraft. And in most cases the way to get around this is to pretend it is not needed and “self certification” is good enough. But the problem is that you fundamentally break regulation. For cars on the road today, every single partial automation feature is an “Advanced driver-assistance system”. Emphasis on “driver-assistance”: if the feature does not work, it is legally the driver fault. That is how Tesla is able to put their system on the road. If a manufacturer was legally responsible for Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) being able to prevent every accident, the system would be fundamentally different designed and every driver will hate it.
    As far as I know, the only automated transportation systems where no human is at fault are driverless trains and the certification of each individual system (every system is approved separately) is on par with aircraft & airline certification and a years long process as well as very expensive. So when Wisk is saying “within 5 years of certification”, they forget to mention certification being developed and legally approved for deployments is at least 10 years away and probably only for very limited deployments. It is not just certifying the aircraft, but also all operations of the aircraft: it is like certifying a Boeing 737, American Airlines as its operator and ATC as one single entity.
    The other problem is that you introduce a new mode of operation which might not be acceptable by the public. Unmanned drones are not quiet and for a large people carrying drone that will be worse. So where can you fly? Here the aviation authority is developing an air corridor scheme for drones: for 5 year it has been worked on and it is still confined to a research centre. One of the problems is that people don’t want to have drones fly past their windows (almost all our housing is high rise) or over their house looking into their private property. Here, more than 80% of airspace has either a drone ban or drone operation limitations due to proximity to airports (military as well as civil). That makes developing air corridors as complicated as putting in new roads: “I want the road but not past MY house” becomes now “I want an air corridor but not close to MY house”.
    It is also difficult to understand the operational aspects because everything is new. Here there was a trial between a University and Airbus having an autonomous drone deliver goods from shore to ship. Business case wise, it is a no-brainer as the delivery by boat is dangerous and accidents are frequent. The trial failed due to an aspect which was obvious to everyone who has operated a large ship, but not understood by the research team as they had never operated or even been on a ship at sea before. The guys from the shipping company thought that the issue was so obvious, it did not need mentioning. In the end it was going back to the drawing board. This is similar to the autonomous vehicle company not being able to detect women in short skirts because the training database for image recognition was generated in autumn/winter when everyone was wearing warm clothes.
    Figuring out what the operations for this kind of eVTOL look like is still a long way away.

  8. I can understand the idea that the control system would have applications for Boeings commercial products, but this is hard to justify. Yes, Sikorski is leveraging its autonomous helicopter flight system into a Fedex ATR 72 for single pilot ops with an eye on expanding that but wisk is the wrong way to get that technology onboard.

    • I find it hard to accept that the Wisk control philosophy let alone system will have application to Boeings fixed wing aircraft. eVTOL and Electric aircraft offer vastly greater possibilities in redundancy and will be far less problematic in the case of an engine failure.

  9. I can see a lot of scepticism but I think Boeing is right to be active in this market. Here are issues as I see it.

    1 Pilotless flying with automatic non human air traffic control. This is simply essential because pilots and their exhausting training and simulator training costs are unaffordable for 7 seaters. We have to dispense with them.

    Self driving automobiles are already showing themselves safer than human driven. Many of the issues are not the self driving cars but other erratic drivers, pedestrians and cyclists who would be beyond protection even in a manually driven car. We will see self driving cars in the future on certified road sections and parking stations in which the car parks and departs itself (automatic valet service).

    2 Batteries. They’re getting better all the time. The upper limit for secondary batteries is probably 1kW.Hr/Kg but we will likely see 400WHr/Kg in the every day. They’re already in lab preproduction.

    Certified aviation batteries at 220W.Hr (same as current Tesla) will certainly make eVTOL urban air mobility possible and 320W.Hr/Kg will make 250km regional routes possible and probably 400km in winged flight all without exceeding mass fractions of about 33%. They will decimate aircraft like the ATR42, float planes, light aircraft and even some B737/A320 routes.

    Batteries can be optimised for power by compromising their energy density by increasing electrode cross sectional area. The extra conductor consumes electrolyte volume. However if you want a 150 kW.Hr battery Pack that can discharge/recharge 1.5 Megawatt you can do it by compromising it to 100kW. This is why I am confident that Lilium Jet eVTOL will work and fly but maybe not achieve its 250km range requirements initially.

    The way around this is with Graphene’s which have extraordinary conductivity. Expensive to make at the moment.

    3 Redundancy. Lilum will have 36 EDF electric ducted fans and 9 battery packs. This is a massive amount of redunancy compared to airliners which regulary fall out of the sky due to bird strike on their double engines, have pan pan or mayday due to mechanical failure of a single engine or problems with undercarriages, tires, hydraulic systems etc. Absurdly these aircraft are dependant on a few pitot static sensors and alpha vanes. eVTOL won’t have this weakness.

    Pilots make a lot of mistakes. and we must assume they are fatigued, sick when the systems degradation happens and can’t perform. To many aircraft have crashed with pilots ignoring stick shakers and stick pushers forgetting de-icing, shutting down the wrong engine etc. The reason there is a dirth of regional aircraft is the cost of piloting them.

    Electric flight works so long as the mass fraction of batteries is well below 33% or so and the range less than 200nmi/350km. Above that the increasing mass fraction of batteries make the aircraft so heavy it is less efficient than an aircraft fueled by SAF.

    4 Boeing is a company that knows how to design an aircraft. It’s wide bodies are superb. Its narrow body is an anachronism but still a superb economic performer. Boeing’s quality control and certification issues are deep but will pass. It must continue to look to the future.

    • @ William:

      All excellent comments.

      The upper end of the battery energy density as you say is ~ 1 kWh/kg. However, all technologies capable of that level of energy density have other difficulties: cold start problems, cooling the battery in high draw rates, low cycle count, rapid DoD degradation, volatile chemistry, and so on. Just difficulties to overcome.

      Re #4:
      “Boeing is a company that knows how to design an aircraft”
      I don’t agree that we can say ‘Boeing IS a company that knows how to design an aircraft’. Boeing WAS a company that knew how to design an aircraft is more appropriate IMO. Speaking from direct experience here, the current staff employed at Boeing, on average, is not qualified to design airplanes. We have no evidence of good engineering work coming out of Boeing for some time – all the best talent, those who contributed to the design of the 757, 767, 777-200LR/300ER and saved the company during the 787 debacles walked out the door before ~ 2015. Their skills were not captured or transferred and they were replaced with the thuggish bottom echelon of new US graduates, often with majors unrelated to aircraft design, or psychopathic hunter-killer pairs residing in the lower administrative hierarchy. Note that I am not saying these issues are insurmountable – similar corporate issues have been encountered and fixed in other industrial companies in the past. I am skeptical that the current Boeing upper management would recognize these issues and has any serious plans for fixing them. They can’t get serious about fixing the issue without first recognizing that there is a problem. Insisting on their past glory, they will insist to the end that they have the “best engineering talent onboard”, right up to their downfall.

      • The scenario you describe is all too common and a sign of very poor executive management that comes from board down. There is a lack of focus on succession planning and skills development. Everyone and everything can be outsourced. It is a kind of moral collapse with a simple lack of love for the organisation.

        There appear to have been some bitter industrial strikes that set the scene. The lack of a universal healthcare system in the US does seem to lead to a lot of disputes.

      • “Boeing is a company that knows how to design an airplane”?
        Dude, what bunker ave you spent the last 25 in?
        I would agree with:
        1. Boeing is a company that knows how to massage a balance sheet
        2. Boeing is a company that knows how to divert cash flow from R&D to dividends and buybacks
        3. Boeing is a company that knows how to stock its board of directors with beancounters, ex-Generals, and celebrity know-nothings
        4. Boeing is a company that knows how to mislead regulators, airlines, and the flying public in quest for shareholder value
        5. Boeing is a company that knows how to drop $20 billion on the 787 development fiasco and another $20 billion on the Max disaster
        Sad fact is, these people can kill tens of billions and hundreds of lives and, in the end, it makes no difference.
        If you amortize 346 lives over 30 years it works out to less than one victim per month, which is pretty good. I rate the stock a strong ‘buy’.

  10. I won’t disagree with any of the above but still say the B787 was a brilliant design. The fact that it was built “McDonald Douglass” outsourcing ” Harry Stonecipher” style. (He signed of only if it was) probably added so much risk and poor communication it caused the fiasco. It’s not the way the B747 was designed (Sutter resisted moving and splitting out of Puget Sound to get certain politicians favourable)

  11. When was the 787 launched, 2003? So the development was about 15-20 years ago? If we accept that it was a great design, how many of those engineers have not been run off by the beancounters running the show? They have specifically targeted experienced employees for layoffs and Golden handshakes. Engineering is just another overhead expense to be minimized. I have heard eye witness accounts of all hands meetings in which management said “we have a mature product line and do not plan any new development programs in the near future”….so we don’t need expensive experienced people.
    An engineer is an engineer, just a body in a chair,….we can fire them all today and hire new ones just out of college when we need them….
    Just saying, what Boeing could do 15 years ago is not very relevant to what it can do now.
    It is no longer an A/C development company.
    It is a very efficient low-cost producer of legacy airplanes.
    Calhoun is in a tough spot. If he does not launch something the company will continue to bleed market share to the competition. But if history (the past 20 years is any guide) a new program will be a money loser due to failure to execute.

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