Autonomous Flight: What We Mean and Why It’s First

March 10, 2022

In 2017, we made aviation history by becoming the first company in the U.S. to fly an entirely self-flying electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxi designed for passenger use. However, autonomous flight has been part of our story from day one.

Increased interest in Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), eVTOLs, and air taxi services has led to questions around what we mean by “autonomy” and why we’re pursuing a self-flying first approach. It’s a fair question: after all, many of our peers are planning to go to market with a piloted-first approach. The truth is, autonomy is worth the wait, and the consensus within the industry is that autonomous flight is the end goal.

What do we mean by autonomy?

By autonomy, we mean that our aircraft aviates, navigates, and communicates, on its own. It is fully autonomous and it flies itself, today. Since 2017, we’ve been flying without a pilot on board, nor a remote pilot on the ground. Unlike other unpiloted aircraft, there is not a traditional “stick and rudder” in our system.

However, there are still humans in the loop via our ground station where all flights are monitored, but this role is more akin to ATC than a traditional pilot.

We’ve designed our system in a way that, in the event of an off-nominal situation, a flight supervisor can intervene by sending a new command to the aircraft, which it will then execute on its own. This is how we conduct flight tests today.

However, we are not building a black box of AI to fly the aircraft. Our autonomous system is built on proven aviation systems, such as autopilots, precision nav, data links, that are augmented with sensors and our procedural-based decision-making software. Essentially, we are combining many well-understood, deterministic technologies into one system, which we intend to certify.

Why autonomous and why self-flying first?

We believe that autonomy is one of the most critical elements for commercial AAM and eVTOL success. After all, 93% of flight functions on a commercial airliner today are automated, and the broader aviation industry continues to implement higher levels of automation.

Among many of the other benefits, autonomy brings an increased level of safety, enables scale, and ensures affordability. Simply put, autonomy is the key to unlocking both commercial viability and scale.

We often cite the stat that 80% of general aviation accidents are caused by human error. Human pilots are extremely well-trained and a critical component of aviation – and the overall aviation industry has one of the highest levels of safety on record. However, combining human factors, complex systems, and high-stress environments can lead to error.

Our goal is to create a system with as few single points of failure as possible in both the design and operation of our aircraft. By removing the human element from the direct aviate, navigate, communicate operations of the aircraft and replacing it with reliable automation, we are creating a safer system.

However, autonomy is critical to more than just safety. It is widely recognized within the industry that autonomy is needed to achieve scale and mass adoption. As air travel continues to recover following the pandemic, the broader pilot shortage will only continue to be an issue. AAM as a whole has the potential to introduce tens of thousands of new aircraft over the next 5-10 years. Finding and certifying human pilots for all of these aircraft is simply not feasible. Autonomy is needed in order to realize the full potential of advanced air mobility services.

Finally, autonomy allows us to lower the overall cost to passengers on a per-passenger, per-mile basis. When combined with other cost-saving factors – such as electric vs. traditional aviation fuels – we will be able to offer flights at a lower cost and ensure that our services are accessible and affordable to everyone.

We recognize that autonomy is part of a larger picture – which still has humans in the loop. However, we believe that autonomy means a safer, more reliable, scalable, and more affordable overall system that opens the door to everyday flight for everyone.