Autonomy takes off... change our world

Autonomous technology promises to revolutionise not just aviation and passenger and cargo transport but also how and where we live and work. Words: Mike Stones

GARY GYSIN LIKES cars – a lot. He loves his Tesla and is a big Formula One racing fan. But, like everyone, he hates traffic jams. “It was 1pm on a Sunday in June and I’m stuck in a traffic jam on the I405 [interstate freeway], north of Downtown LA. And I’m thinking the offices are not open yet. What will traffic be like when they do?” As CEO of autonomous aircraft company Wisk, Gysin is convinced the answer lies in the skies. He, and a generation of innovators and entrepreneurs like him, look up and imagine the airways populated by fully autonomous vehicles that promise to fundamentally reshape global society.

Imagine is, perhaps, the wrong word. Autonomous aviation technologies have been with us for years. Every year the technology becomes more sophisticated. Every year the dawn of fully autonomous aviation in the mass market – where aircraft complete their missions without on board pilots – moves closer. So, let’s look at the progress autonomous aviation has already made, the benefits it brings and some of the hurdles that remain to be overcome.

But first, what does autonomous flight mean? “Autonomy is a complex term meaning different things to different people,” Gysin tells Corporate Jet Investor (CJI). “We call it self-flying more than we call it autonomy. There is still a human in the loop and there will be for the foreseeable future. The question is how much of the system do you automate?”

Within the terms of that definition and on a test level, Wisk and others are flying autonomously now. “We have nine full scale aircraft and have logged more than 1,500 test flights – all of them autonomous,” says Gysin. “We mean flying without a pilot on board but with control from the ground. But it’s not active control – there’s no pilot controlling the aircraft. It’s running an autonomous mission with its own flight plan and no human touch.” He invites us to think of the pilot as a ground supervisor, whose task is to watch for incidents, monitor the telemetry of the aircraft and, in future, communicate with the passengers to offer reassurance. Back in 2017, the company became the first in the US to successfully fly an autonomous, electric vertical and take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft designed for passenger use. Wisk is not alone.

EHang, based in China, also stakes its claim on landmark achievements. Last June the company claimed the world’s first commercial pilot operation approval from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) to use its EHang 216 passenger grade autonomous aerial vehicle (AAV) for logistical use cases.

The Nasdaq-listed firm also presented the first fully autonomous passenger electric-powered drone at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

Andreas Perotti, the company's chief marketing officer in Europe, tells CJI: “We are the first company globally to enter serial production in our domestic market in China. We are operating now with about 100 models [the company’s Flagship two-seater eVTOL] based on a special permit to fly in pre-defined zones spread over the whole country.”

EHang is expecting to gain type certification in “the next couple of months”, which will “open up the whole Chinese airspace”, says Perotti. “EHang is flying fully autonomous passenger vehicles now,” he adds. The company also has piloted versions and long-range models, which can cover up to 186 miles (300km) per flight.

But the world of autonomous aviation is not confined to light weight air taxis. Start-up company Xwing says it completed the “fully autonomous gate-to-gate demonstration of a commercial cargo aircraft” in February 2021. Its specially equipped Cessna Grand Caravan 208B left the gate, taxied, took-off, landed and returned to the gate entirely on its own, according to the San Francisco-based company. Although a safety pilot sat in the cockpit, all traffic control interactions were conducted from the ground.

Xwing chief executive Marc Piette wants to eliminate the pilot. “Our goal is eventually not to have any human involved in the entire operation – from gate-to-gate, departure point to arrival point,” he explains. “But there are still a few constraints that prevent you from doing that – with the biggest being air traffic control.” About 200 missions have been completed and all of those have had a safety pilot on board and a ground control operator who communicates with an air traffic control operator on behalf of the autonomous aircraft.

EHang’s 216 passenger grade autonomous aerial vehicle.

EHang’s 216 passenger grade autonomous aerial vehicle.

The company is focusing specifically on freight transport, targeting the cargo feeder market with an operational range of 434nm (805km). Its Autoflight System can be retrofitted to current aircraft and integrated into existing on-board flight control systems.

Larger companies also have a significant presence in autonomous aviation. Wisk is partnered with Boeing and all the big OEMs have made significant investments in the technology.

Airbus considers autonomous technologies today as being relatively advanced. Anne-Claire Le Bihan, system design engineer from the Wayfinder project at Acubed, the Silicon Valley innovation centre of Airbus, tells CJI: “Rapidly converging technologies are developing coherently and concurrently and bringing meaningful progress.” The key technologies involved in the development are computer vision, assistance in decision-making and natural language processing, with AI (artificial intelligence) underpinning all of them.

For evidence, Le Bihan points to Airbus’ autonomous taxiing, take-off and landing (ATTOL) commercial aircraft demonstrator. This aircraft completed fully automatic vision-based flight tests using on-board image recognition technology in June 2020 at Toulouse-Blagnac airport, southwest France.

The test crew consisted of two pilots, two flight test engineers and a test flight engineer. But the autopilot was the star of the show. “The ATTOL demonstrator flight campaign – 500 flights – showed we were able to complete the world’s first fully-automatic vision-based flight test of a commercial aircraft,” says Le Bihan. Rather than relying on a conventional Instrument Landing System (ILS), the flight was made possible by a wide range of technologies, such as machine learning algorithms, automated tools for data labelling and model generation etc.

It’s not just aviation companies that are active in autonomous aviation. Car manufacturers, like Hyundai, technology companies, like Google, and retail firms, like Amazon, are all making significant investments in self-flying craft and drones. More than 1,200 advanced air mobility vehicles have been ordered in the first five months of this year alone, according to research by CJI’s sister title Revolution.Aero.

This is just a snapshot. Up to 300 companies are trying to launch electric vertical aircraft. Major players include Joby – active for 12 years and described as “the grandfather of this industry” by Cyrus Sigari co-founder and managing partner of investment firm UP.Partners. (Wisk is about the same age). Other leading players include Lilium and Volocopter, both active for six years and Archer, currently involved in a patent dispute with Wisk. Reliable Robotics, Merlin Labs and Skyryse are also singled out by many for both their progress and potential.

Then, there are leading drone companies like Zipline that started delivering blood in Africa in 2016. It now claims “the world's largest autonomous network” and to be “transforming what's possible with on-demand delivery”. Zipline says it has flown 10,735,336 miles, delivered 913,136 packages of blood and antivenom and is servicing 25m customers worldwide.

So, what is prompting the billions of dollars of investment in this flourishing sector worldwide?

“Fully autonomous vehicles may be able to operate close to 24/7”
Cyrus Sigari, UP.Partners

EHANG HIGHLIGHTS COST & SAFETY - Andreas Perotti highlights the main motivations behind autonomous technology for EHang: “The main reason is cost but it is also motivated by safety. Most accidents don’t arise from technical reasons but from human failure,” he tells CJI.

Taking an EHang to the city could become commonplace.

Autonomy ‘lifts safety and cuts costs’

Safety and costs. Those two words succinctly summarise the size of the prize on offer from autonomous aviation. Some emphasise improved safety, some lower costs but always the same two words appear.

Andreas Perotti, EHang’s chief marketing officer in Europe, puts it like this: “The main reason is cost but it is also motivated by safety. Most aircraft accidents don’t arise from technical reasons but from human failure. We truly believe that reducing the level of human interaction is not lowering safety standards but raising them. But, at the end of the day, it’s a business reason to achieve a reasonable pricing for the consumer.”

The innovation EHang is striving for does not lie in how best to transport people or cargo from A to B, says Perotti. “We have had this for decades and it is called the helicopter.” EHang has a different goal. “The innovation we are doing is to make the function and principle of the helicopter affordable for a mass market using technology. Artificial intelligence, electrical engines and light-weight construction among other things. This is what we are aiming for.”

Cost is critical. It must be not significantly higher than taking an Uber or a cab. “That means you must have a value chain that is as lean as possible,” says Perotti. “The vehicle design has to be lean. The whole manufacturing, after market and maintenance needs to be lean and low.”

Dropping the pilot expands both the total addressable market (TAM) and cuts costs, according to Cyrus Sigari, co-founder and managing partner at UP.Partners. “Fully autonomous vehicles may eventually be able to operate close to 24/7. Crews don’t need to rest. You can expand the TAM and lower costs. If you keep the costs down, you can carry more and fly more.”

Improved safety standards are the main motivator for Luuk van Dijk, founder and CEO at Daedalean AI. “Safety is definitely the driver,” van Dijk tells CJI. “People talk about the cost savings. All that is not possible if you can’t meet or exceed the current levels of safety. If you want denser use of airspace, it would not be acceptable if you cannot guarantee safety. It’s not about this technology being cheaper or greener, it’s about it being safer.” Electrical propulsions systems offer inherently higher safety standards, he argues.

Anne-Claire Le Bihan, system design engineer at Wayfinder, Acubed by Airbus, also highlights safety. “Many aircraft risks happen during taxiing because this is one of the phases where pilots have the greatest workload,” she says. “But each phase of flight can be greatly improved with autonomous technologies – both in terms of safety and operations.”

Andreas Perotti, EHang’s chief marketing officer in Europe.

EHang is looking to make the function of the helicopter affordable for a mass market.

EHANG HIGHLIGHTS COST & SAFETY - Andreas Perotti highlights the main motivations behind autonomous technology for EHang: “The main reason is cost but it is also motivated by safety. Most accidents don’t arise from technical reasons but from human failure,” he tells CJI.

Taking an EHang to the city could become commonplace.

Cyrus Sigari, UP.Partners, singles out three key development topics: detect-and-avoid solutions, autonomous weather decision-making and what happens when things go wrong.

There is grim evidence to back her views. On March 27th, 1977, two Boeing 747 passenger jets, KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736, collided on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport, now Tenerife North Airport, on the island of Tenerife. The accident, involving a taxiing aircraft, claimed 583 lives, making it the deadliest in aviation history.

For Xwing chief executive Marc Piette autonomous flight promises basic logistical improvements, greater flexibilities and fuel efficiencies. For example, it will offer a remedy to the shortage of pilots. Despite the airlines’ pilot furlough programmes during the Covid-19 global pandemic, he believes the pilot shortage will continue to worsen. Best of all autonomy offers new capabilities that promise to transform travel and where populations live and work.

“It opens up the opportunity to develop large scale point-to-point on demand air taxi networks,” explains Piette. “These will be flown by fairly small vehicles that can fly without the need for pilots. They will be able to carry people or cargo on a regional level in point-to-point fashion that does not exist today.”

Piette asks us to consider self-flying, car-sized aircraft, for which it is easier to find customers than his Grand Caravan. Remove the need for an onboard pilot and you can shrink the size of the aircraft and its operating costs. “Now, you can start thinking about the personal use case for autonomous aircraft.”

He also believes autonomous flight is more fuel efficient than piloted flight. Personal testimony is supplied by an Xwing pilot who once worked for a low-cost air carrier. The carrier found that on short final approach to land lowering the undercarriage of its commercial jets 5km away from touchdown instead of 6km saved about 100kg of fuel in avoiding undercarriage drag. “It’s challenging for pilots to know exactly how far they are away from the runways to do this safely,” says Piette. “But it’s a trivial calculation for a computer.”

Two big benefits of autonomous flight for New Vista Capital co-founder Kirsten Bartok Touw are remedying the pilot shortage and cleaner flight. “We have always had a pilot shortage,” Bartok tells CJI. “This is going to become more acute as we move into the eVTOL [electric vehicle take-off and landing] generation and more passenger vehicles are used for assignments.”

Bartok believes electrification will enable distributive propulsion systems to power many different types of aircraft. “That is going to make things much more cost efficient,” says Bartok, who is an Xwing investor.

Electric aircraft are clean aircraft. Transportation accounts for about 1% of all greenhouse gas emissions and relying on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will not be enough to solve the problem, she argues. “SAF alone is not going to get us there. Your only option is electrification and clean hydrogen. So, there is a huge benefit for the climate in going in that direction.”

Then, there’s the money. Let’s not forget the potential return on investment which attracts investors, like Bartok, Sigari and many others, to autonomous flight. Morgan Stanley Research forecasts the total addressable market for autonomous aircraft to reach $1.5trn by 2040. At the report’s launch in January 2019, Adam Jonas, head of investment bank’s Global Auto and Shared Mobility research team predicted: “The intersection of many technologies, such as ultra-efficient batteries, autonomous systems, and advanced manufacturing processes are spawning a flurry of activity in this space."

That “flurry” of activity has, 18 months later, become a torrent of investment, with blank cheque companies or special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) creating a rising tide which has floated many start up boats.

In April Bartok priced a $240m SPAC initial public offering with former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg. Their company, New Vista Acquisition, is specifically looking for investment targets in Fourth Aviation Revolution companies.

Last year, Kenn Ricci, founder of the monolithic Directional Aviation, launched the SPAC Zanite Acquisition Corporation to acquire businesses embedded in the Fourth Aviation Revolution. “We don’t want to do the same thing again and these are exciting times in aviation,” said Ricci at the time. “We are looking at new areas like electric aviation, sustainable aviation and other emerging technologies.”

Directional typically has about $30m to invest in equity in each new company. With leverage, that can grow to around $100m or $150m, according to Ricci. “There are private equity companies interested in several billion-dollar companies but there is a gap between what we do and what the large funds are doing. That is why we have filed for a SPAC.”

If this is the potential that autonomous aviation offers, what are the challenges that need to be overcome to realise that promise?

Reliable Robotics is testing autonomous flight capabilities in Cessna 172 aircraft.

Kirsten Bartok Touw’s US autonomy waypoints

Now: Remotely piloted aircraft in the form of pilot assistance. This includes Garmin Autoland

2023/2024: One-to-one approvals – for one ground operator to control one autonomous vehicle

2025/2026: One-to-many approvals

2027/2028/2029: Fully autonomous aviation where the vehicle is making most of the decisions.

WISK CALLS IT ‘SELF-FLYING’ Gary Gysin, Wisk CEO: “We call it self-flying more than we call it autonomy. There is still a human in the loop and there will be for the foreseeable future. The question is how much of the system do you automate.” © Wisk Aero

WISK CALLS IT ‘SELF-FLYING’ Gary Gysin, Wisk CEO: “We call it self-flying more than we call it autonomy. There is still a human in the loop and there will be for the foreseeable future. The question is how much of the system do you automate.” © Wisk Aero

Three hills to climb

For its many fans, autonomous aviation offers the prospect of a sunny upland landscape. Within this landscape, autonomous passenger aircraft will whizz passengers around cities in complete safety at a cost comparable to an Uber cab. Also integrated seamlessly into this far denser airspace are pilotless cargo flights and drones that deliver essential goods within minutes of making an order (Companies like Zipline can do this bit, at least, now).

This is a picture of global society transformed. Think the impact of the internet or the Henry Ford Model T. Gone are the lost, dead hours spent commuting across cities or from rural residences to urban offices. Journeys that now take tedious and tiring hours will last mere minutes. Bid farewell to train stations and jammed motorways. Say hello to vertiports atop skyscrapers.

But to realise this promise three hills need to be climbed. The size of those hills depends on who you speak to, but most agree on the general topography. The first hill is Regulatory restrictions, the second is the Technology gap and the third is Public acceptance.

Hill One, Regulatory restrictions seem the biggest climb. But the steepness of the ascent depends on where you are operating, according to Andreas Perotti, EHang’s chief marketing officer in Europe. “Some regions are more in favour of adopting disruptive technology than others, which are more sceptical,” says Perotti, whose company is based in China. “Roughly speaking the Asian market is very far ahead [in terms of gaining regulatory approvals].” EHang says it expects type certification in its domestic market of China within months and full certification within 12 to 24 months.

“In the US you can expect an opening up of the market in the next five years,” he says. “Whereas in Europe it may take the next 10 years, with a question mark over Latin America and Africa.”

Gary Gysin, Wisk CEO, has no doubts about the biggest hill: “It’s not the technology, it’s the regulatory environment,” he tells Corporate Jet Investor (CJI). It’s a view coloured by Wisk’s decision to move straight to pilotless eVTOL flight from scratch. The development of such craft may be more complicated, he concedes, but the process won’t be compromised by the need to accommodate both self-flying and piloted versions.

Gysin draws a contrast between the regulatory environment in Europe compared with the US. “EASA is very prescriptive when it comes to eVTOL. So, all the OEMs know what [standards] they have to design to. The FAA does it differently and lets OEMs negotiate special conditions, which can take quite a while.”

Setting aside emergency systems such as Garmin’s Autoland, pilots will remain within the loop for at least the next five years, according to Wisk. “Within 10 years, the industry – certainly the eVTOL sector – will be self-flying, with a supervisor on the ground,” says Gysin. We can expect fully autonomous flight, without ground supervisors, over the next 15 to 20 years, he added.

Wisk, Xwing and other developers are currently operating in the US under special experimental airworthiness certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

A perspective on timescale was offered by Filip Verhaeghe, founder and CEO of avionics software company Sol.One at CJI’s sister title Revolution.Aero’s Global 2021 conference. “It generally takes two years to design an aircraft,” Verhaeghe told delegates. “It takes about eight years to get it certified.”

“It takes two years to design an aircraft. It takes about eight years to get it certified.”
Filip Verhaeghe, Sol.One

VOLOCOPTER AIRCRAFT Volocopter’s progress in autonomous aviation was highlighted by Cyrus Sigari. Based in Germany, Volocopter is launching with pilots and plans a training programme with CAE.

ZIPLINE HELPS PIONEER DRONE DELIVERY Zipline started delivering blood in Africa in 2016. It now claims “the world's largest autonomous network”. Since 2016 Zipline has completed 166,991 deliveries of blood, vaccines and antivenom, and, in the process, saved thousands of lives.

“The biggest hill to climb is not the technology. It is the regulatory environment,” says Wisk CEO Gary Gysin. © Wisk Aero

© Wisk Aero

© Wisk Aero

Hill Two is Technology gaps. Marc Piette, CEO of Xwing, picks out two constraints: integration with Air Traffic Control and detect-and-avoid technology. “The biggest constraint is Air Traffic Control,” he tells CJI. “There’s a lack of infrastructure to automate air traffic decision-making. It currently relies on voice carrier VHF channels. But we are not looking to have an ATC controller talk to a computer for safety critical applications.”

Another missing piece of the puzzle is the lack of sense-and-avoid or detect-and-avoid technology to ensure the safe separation of aircraft in the air and on the ground. Then, there’s the challenge of conducting safe landings under all conditions without the aid of a ground-based instrument landing system (ILS). “We know how to solve these problems today,” explains Piette. “It’s a matter of solving them adequately, with the safety level that is required.”

For Cyrus Sigari, co-founder and managing partner at UP.Partners, the three topics to tackle are: detect-and-avoid solutions, autonomous decision-making around weather and other tactical issues and what happens when things go wrong. “These are all discreet problems that can be solved. It’s just a matter of time,” he says.

The third and final hill to climb is public acceptance. This is “the billion-dollar question”, according to Piette of Xwing. “It’s the crux of the problem because it is the main limiting factor. It’s incumbent on industry players to demonstrate to the regulator that the system, as designed, meets the safety levels that are expected.” He is referring not just to systems aboard autonomous aircraft and the way the aircraft flies but also how it fits into the airspace plus the environment it will face in that airspace.

Perotti at EHang quotes studies probing public acceptance of autonomous aviation in Europe. Commenting on a recent study from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), he said: “More than two-thirds of those polled were in favour of the service, while one third did not have an opinion because the technology is so new,” he said. In other studies, about 20 to 25% of those polled were very sceptical of the technology because they feared noise pollution and low safety standards, he added.

But EHang’s eVTOLS produce about 74 decibels on take-off and landing – far quieter than the EU maximum of 95 decibels permitted for trucks. Dismissing safety concerns, Perotti said the EHang 216 Eagle has 16 rotors powered by 16 batteries operating in 16 self-contained systems. One craft could lose up to four of the independent rotors and still fly safely, he says.

Sigari at UP.Partners thinks the public can draw reassurance from the drone world. “Companies like Zipline, Wing and Skydio are on the pathway of doing millions of flights in the next few years,” says Sigari. “If you can show that you can operate these smaller autonomous vehicles with a high level of safety and reliability, you can build confidence that the technology of detect-and-avoid, flight planning and emergency response can be extrapolated to other forms of mobility, perhaps to eventually carrying people.”

He also points out that passengers were initially very reluctant to travel in lifts (elevators) once they became automated in the early 1900s. But are 21st century users of autonomous aviation right to remain worried in age of cyber terrorism? It’s a question that unlocks powerful views.

Gary Gysin, Wisk CEO. © Wisk Aero

Marc Piette, Xwing chief executive, wants to eliminate pilots.

The two biggest constraints to autonomy are integration with Air Traffic Control and developing detect-and-avoid technology.

‘Don’t let the Internet of Things near aircraft’

“The last thing an aircraft should be is a thing of the internet,” warns Luuk van Dijk, founder and CEO of aviation machine learning company Daedalean AI. He says particular dangers for aviation lie in the Internet of Things – where billions of physical devices around the world are connected to the internet, collecting and sharing data.

“The Internet of Things should not include aircraft. It’s just a terrible idea.” Van Dijk bases his opposition on the fact connected systems rely on the use of tools to build both hardware and software. “These tools, often of ghastly quality, are massive vectors for attacks,” he tells Corporate Jet Investor (CJI). “The kind of dangers that lurk on the inside of these tools people are ill-equipped to deal with. People are woefully unaware of the risks and hazards of the connected world.”

Neither do international laws offer reassurance for those worried about cybersecurity. “The laws are hopeless. They are tokens that make everybody feel safer but, actually, do nothing,” says Van Dijk.

A more comforting perspective is offered by Andreas Perotti, EHang’s chief marketing officer in Europe. While acknowledging the importance of cybersecurity, Perotti points out our dependence on the connected world. “All money. All bank accounts are in the digital space,” he tells CJI.

“Even nuclear plants are connected to the digital space,” says Perotti. “If it’s possible to make these sectors – which are so crucial to our daily lives – safe and secure, it must be possible to reach a similar level of safety standards in the area of cybercrime and terrorism for flying aircraft.”

Anne-Claire Le Bihan, Wayfinder.

Airbus has completed fully automatic vision-based flight tests.

Further reassurance is offered by Gary Gysin, CEO of Wisk. “It is an issue. But you don’t see satellites falling out of the sky because they have been hacked,” he says. “Absolutely we have to put cyber protections in place but we are able to do that. Servers have been hacked but we have not seen flying things get hacked.”

Marc Piette, chief executive of cargo specialist Xwing, believes the industry is taking the cybersecurity threat very seriously and remains confident of success. “It is very challenging to protect yourself against high sophisticated state actors but there are incentives you can put in place to avoid these kinds of incidents.” But it’s not just hostile governments he fears. “The industry needs to put the bar high enough to prevent non state actors interfering with flying operations and I think we can get there.”

Cybersecurity is a key area of technological development and investment, says Cyrus Sigari, co-founder and managing partner of investor UP.Partners. It’s essential to build a robust ecosystem that protects the world of mobility particularly for vehicle-to-vehicle communication and for ground-based operators to vehicles, he says.

Building the infrastructure to support autonomous aviation will be a key part of its development.

VOLOCOPTER AIRCRAFT Volocopter’s progress in autonomous aviation was highlighted by Cyrus Sigari. Based in Germany, Volocopter is launching with pilots and plans a training programme with CAE.

Airbus has prioritised the topic too. Anne-Claire Le Bihan, system design engineer at Acubed, Airbus’s Silicon Valley innovation centre, says: “Our teams within Airbus consider all scenarios to ensure robust security is maintained. That includes the hostile actions of potential hackers and what must be in place to ensure the safety of the aircraft.”

Whatever the cyber risks, autonomous aviation, by definition, relies heavily on software. Filip Verhaeghe, founder and CEO of software company Sol.One explained at a Revolution.Aero’s Global 2021 conference: “We are in a high traffic environment over a small area [of a city] and need efficient ground operators. So, we need a lot more computing on board than before.”

It was wise to aim for the very highest standards from the start, he told delegates. “You have to really write for certification". If you use software that wasn't designed for your product, you won’t get certification. “Make your life easy start from the top,” added Verhaeghe.

Another reason for demanding high standards from the outset was the astonishingly high cost of writing software. “Building certified software is costly work. Writing one line of code to standard DO178C for software certification can cost $25 to $100. That includes the costs of development, validation and verification,” said Verhaeghe.

Deadalean AI’s van Dijk concludes with a sobering thought. “People are generally unaware that if some powerful foreign government wants to do something to your data, there’s very little you can do about it.”

‘True autonomy to arrive in five years’

Five years. That’s how long it will take to achieve remotely piloted aircraft approved by the FAA. Truly autonomous aviation – where there is no pilot involved – will take a bit longer, according to New Vista Capital co-founder Kirsten Bartok Touw. Only within that time can the regulatory and technical barriers be overcome – despite the optimistic predictions of some companies – Bartok believes.

“We need to understand it’s going to take a while to build up that middle ware – the digital ecosystem – on which autonomous aircraft are going to fly. Think of this as edge computing on the aircraft and then the infrastructure which manages it in the cloud. We have to be patient, but we will get there. It takes time to build,” said Bartok.

The waypoints on the path to full autonomy are clear, according to Bartok. Step one – remotely piloted aircraft, the early stages of which are often described as pilot assist, where tasks are automated for a pilot. This is with us now. Garmin’s Autoland, which can fly and land a plane without human intervention is currently approved for just three aircraft: Piper M600 SLS, Daher TBM 940 and Cirrus Vision Jet. The only problem with the technology today, is that the FAA will allow it to be used only in emergency cases when a pilot is incapacitated.

First will come supplemental type certificates (STCs) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for remotely piloted aircraft. It will begin with one-to-one approvals – for one ground operator to control one autonomous vehicle – building over time to one-to-two and then one-to-multiples of aircraft. Optimistically, Bartok thinks one-to-one approvals might arrive in 2023/2024, hopefully followed by one-to-many approvals in 2025/2026.

Eventually, somewhere between 2027 and 2029, we will reach what Bartok describes as fully autonomous aviation. “At this point, the vehicle is making most of the decisions beyond a pilot sitting behind a computer screen controlling the aircraft. Which is how the US Air Force flies a Reaper today.” (The MQ-9 Reaper is the primary offensive strike unmanned aerial vehicle for the US Air Force).

But limitations exist everywhere. For example, how do you integrate these aircraft systems into the National Air Traffic System? This is primarily a voice control system – an actual person has to interact by voice with a person sitting in a tower. So, before autonomy is reached ways to integrate autonomous aircraft into the already busy system will have to be developed.

Also critical is the development of sense-and-avoid or detect-and-avoid technology to enable aircraft to fly safely at speed. “That technology doesn’t exist today in commercial form to buy off the shelf. Many are working on it, but today you can’t purchase devices that can detect-and-avoid at high speeds and at great distances.”

It is important to be realistic about what autonomous aviation can deliver and how long it will take to become commercially available, says Bartok. “These are gradual steps. They will happen. But I don’t want anyone to think we are going to have an autonomous world flying these vehicles in the next few years. It’s just not going to happen in that timeline. We need a true understanding of the milestones that are going to get us to full autonomy.”

ZIPLINE HELPS PIONEER DRONE DELIVERY Zipline started delivering blood in Africa in 2016. It now claims “the world's largest autonomous network”. Since 2016 Zipline has completed 166,991 deliveries of blood, vaccines and antivenom, and, in the process, saved thousands of lives.

CJI Connect

Luuk van Dijk Founder and CEO, Daedalean AI +41 44 552 40 56 • [email protected]

Gary Gysin CEO, Wisk + 650 449-6575 • [email protected]

Anne-Claire Le Bihan System design engineer, Wayfinder [email protected]

Cyrus Sigari Co-founder and managing partner, UP.Partners [email protected]

Andreas Perotti, Chief marketing officer in Europe EHang [email protected]

Marc Piette Chief executive, Xwing [email protected]

Mike Stones, Group editor, Corporate Jet Investor

Mike Stones, Group editor, Corporate Jet Investor