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Can Boeing make pilotless air taxi magic work on big jets? It aims to

A Wisk Aero Generation 6, an electric autonomous air-taxi, is displayed during the International Paris Air Show at the ParisLe Bourget Airport, on June 20, 2023. (Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

To Brian Yutko, a top engineer at Boeing, now CEO of its air taxi subsidiary Wisk, the invention his team has produced is more than just a cool flying car.

Boeing wants aspects of the cutting-edge technologies that allow its taxis to fly autonomously to make it onto big commercial airplanes — and make them safer.

That’s why Boeing invested in Wisk and last month took full ownership, Yutko said.

Wisk must first convince the Federal Aviation Administration that its air taxi meets the very high safety standards of modern airliners — and do it without a pilot as a fallback.

Once the regulator certifies those artificial intelligence and automation technologies as safe, then Boeing can begin to apply them elsewhere.

“We can start to create this and at the same time we’re going to pioneer technologies and methods that will make piloted airplanes safer,” Yutko said.

He foresees a future of “mixed-use airspace, where there’s commercial autonomous aircraft and commercial piloted aircraft.”

“Those are going to live together,” Yutko said.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said in South Carolina last month that he wants the company’s next all-new jet to be “as close to autonomous as we can conceivably get.”

Asked in a pre-Paris Air Show interview with trade magazine Aviation Week if Boeing is planning for a future of pilotless airplanes, he replied: “That is possible. That is not our motivation.”

More likely is the use of these autonomous systems to take over ever more of the tasks pilots have to do.

Besides the technology advances from the air taxi development, Yutko said the pioneering rush by his engineers to speed the electrification of air transport is an essential step to making the planet cleaner before it’s too late.

“If we ever want to have high-power electric systems on commercial airplanes someday — let’s imagine larger electric regional airplanes or hybrid electric airplanes — well, we’ve got to start somewhere,” Yutko said.

In Paris, he sat inside a mock-up of his starting point and showed it off: a robotic, bright yellow, flying taxi that when certified will lift four passengers almost silently into the air and deliver them to their destination.

Comforting the anxious

As at the Farnborough Air Show in 2022, air taxis were a big draw in Paris this week. One even flew this time, the Volocopter 2X prototype, which looks like a little helicopter with an array of small rotors fixed to a circular frame on top of the aircraft.

German company Volocopter says it plans to fly commercially a larger model, the VoloCity, in Paris in the summer of 2024 during the Olympic Games, offering flights from Charles de Gaulle airport to LeBourget, and to a heliport in Paris.

This month it completed flight tests in Neom, the futuristic city planned for a piece of empty desert in Saudi Arabia.

Moving like a silent helicopter, the technology is certainly impressive. Yet perhaps commercial is the wrong word for a vehicle that carries a pilot plus one passenger. Unless your passengers are Saudi princes, it’s hard to see the business case.

A mock-up of Boeing’s vehicle on display at the air show looked more serious. Yutko gave a tour.

It’s no longer a little yellow air taxi, like the one displayed at Farnborough. It carries four people instead of two. It has a trunk in front that holds four standard airplane roller bags.

The larger wings have been moved high up on the fuselage to make it easier for passengers to climb in and out.

Atop the wings are 12 electric lift rotors. After the taxi rises vertically, the six in the front tilt to become propellers that allow the aircraft to fly forward and become wing borne.

Inside, there’s a compartment at each seat for a small bag or backpack.

For passenger peace of mind, in front of each a screen displays the route, with a translucent blue ribbon representing the path ahead and with information about the destination and arrival time.

With no crew on board, above each passenger’s head is a lighted button, intended for anyone who feels anxious or uncomfortable during the flight.

If pressed, it will connect the passenger to a “hospitality manager” on the ground, whose job is to relieve anxiety by telling the passenger what’s happening and what’s ahead.

As in an electric car, there’s a phone charger at each seat, and a cupholder.

The seats can be taken out easily to make it a compact cargo carrier.

Of course the key distinguishing feature of Wisk is that there is no pilot. On the ground, a controller will monitor multiple taxis at once. But it’s not expected the controllers will do much.

The idea of a pilotless taxi seems scary, but also magical, bringing back some of the wonder that must have held people when human flight was new to the world.

A video of the fifth-generation, two-seater Wisk aircraft showed it hovering and rotating a full circle while at a standstill in the air.

The first-production sixth generation aircraft is currently under construction at Wisk headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Yutko said its first flight will be “soon.”

Making it safe

Convincing the FAA of safety starts with the design for the several thousand lithium ion batteries that power the aircraft.

These battery cells are located in packs right behind the passenger cabin under where the wings meet.

Wisk engineers have designed the packs so that if one cell failure propagates to all of the cells in the pack, the heat and energy must be contained within the structure and any gases safely vented outside.

“You need to be able to contain all the energy of a simultaneous detonation basically of all of the cells within the pack,” said Yutko

As for the autonomous flying, don’t imagine this machine taking off and wandering around, working out the best route to take to avoid obstacles.

Think instead of a single preplanned route, carefully designed with no conflicts in the airspace, so there shouldn’t be any conflicts with people coming in and out of airports. It will fly the same thing over and over and over again.

Yutko compared it to a gondola at a ski resort.

“It’s like a gondola in the sky, but you take the wire away,” he said. “There’s no concept of operations right now where these aircraft take off and do some highly complex, unplanned mission.”

However, should something go wrong, the planned route will always have an emergency landing site available for the automation to be able to land if it needs to.

Taxis for the wealthy, and economic justice

Silicon Valley, where Wisk is headquartered, is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into air taxis, reason enough perhaps to suspect a bubble to get a few people very rich — even those who lead failed projects — while they develop what may become a luxury for the wealthy.

Yet Yutko, who grew up in a village in Pennsylvania where his family still works in the coal-mining industry, is a believer in economic justice.

He recognizes that the energy transition away from fossil fuels will affect people across the planet very unevenly, including those in the community where he grew up.

“That’s high-dignity work that those people are doing,” Yutko said. “Those people are keeping the lights on right now.”

“We as a society have got to figure out how do we transition the economy to clean sources of energy and transportation, while bringing those parts of our economy along,” he added.

He believes clean technology can build new industries and new jobs. He said Wisk may soon announce a location it’s been considering where it will scale up production of its taxis once they are certified to fly passengers,

He notes the exponential increase in renewable energy production. The Texas power grid now has 26% of its energy from renewable sources.

And while new technology starts pricey, he notes the fall in the price of electric cars.

“This always starts with engineers that have some entrepreneurial viewpoint on the way technology should evolve and how it’ll affect the world. It typically is bespoke and expensive,” Yutko said. “If we do our jobs, right, and we’re lucky and privileged enough, then we could start to ride those curves.”

“That’s how you change the world,” he said. “That’s how ultimately, you start to bring some of that change to places like where I grew up, where I hope that it will start to introduce, you know, new industries and new jobs.”


© 2023 The Seattle Times

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