Autonomy is the Path to Everyday Aviation

May 26, 2021

By Jonathan Lovegren, Head of Autonomy

I’ve been passionate about aviation for as long as I can remember, and a licensed private pilot for over 17 years. I’ve enjoyed its privileges: the joy of flight, access to thousands of airports around the country, and the ability to travel quickly through the uncongested skies, virtually whenever I want. Despite the potential of general aviation, as a pilot I’ve been able to share its benefits with only a handful of friends. Only 1 in 500 Americans have overcome the many obstacles to becoming a pilot, and once licensed, pilots face the additional challenge of having access to aircraft.

Perhaps this conundrum–the impossibility of broadly expanding legacy piloted aviation–is what has drawn me to autonomous aircraft, which I’ve spent my professional career building. Once developed, an autonomous vehicle can be easily scaled in number and have a much larger impact overall than I ever could as a pilot. But until now, the applications of these aircraft have been limited to small UAS, defense, and other experimental uses.

I want to help more people access the skies, and not just other aviation enthusiasts like myself. Success is when someone like my mother, an average person with no particular interest in airplanes, is able to leverage aviation to get her where she needs to go, faster and safer than the alternatives. To do that, we need a revolution in aviation that enables a completely new scale of on-demand flight. Luckily I’m not alone. I’ve recently joined forces with Wisk, a company that shares my vision of leveraging autonomy to make aviation more accessible and impactful to everyday people. And unlike me with my measly pilot’s license, the Wisk team will make a difference.

Here at Wisk, we believe that aviation has the power to transform urban mobility. To do that, we have to overcome some fundamental challenges while embracing opportunity, starting with autonomous operations.

Apart from enthusiasts willing to tolerate the struggles of personal flight, access to on-demand aviation has historically been limited to a small group of elite that are able to afford very expensive chartered flights. The price point for this type of flight has been a barrier to accessibility. One of the drivers behind the high costs of these flights is operational, including pilots themselves, which can easily account for half the cost of the flight.

This cost is not unjustified. Professional pilots spend years and hundreds of flight hours training and building the experience needed to become commercial pilots. Even once trained, pilots command high levels of skill and responsibility, and are paid accordingly. Combine these costs with the scale of operation — there are at most a handful of passengers being carried per flight — and it’s easy to understand why on-demand air travel drives a high cost per passenger.

At Wisk, we believe that urban air mobility is a tool that should be available and accessible to everyone, and we plan to remove the barrier of cost through autonomy. But, what exactly does that mean?

To us, autonomy means replacing the onboard pilot with a suite of computers, sensors, and software. By doing this, we address a major cost directly, while also making a precious seat available to another passenger. This increases utility and further reduces the average cost per passenger.

In addition to removing the cost barrier, autonomy also solves a practical limitation with today’s aviation industry: pilot shortages. Pre-pandemic, there was a shortage of pilots. We believe that shortage will return once normal flight volumes resume. To achieve the operational scales needed for wide-scale adoption, some estimates, such as those from McKinsey, suggest the industry would need 20% more commercial pilots by 2028–pilots specially trained to operate this entirely new method of travel. It’s simply not possible to reach the scale of operations predicted by many industry analysts with the number of pilots available today. New pilot training, the high-cost of commercial pilot certification, and the amount of time required to achieve commercial pilot certification will be major obstacles. In addition, new eVTOL pilots face entering an industry with an established goal of autonomy, so career prospects are not enticing.

Another key factor – and one of the most important – in our decision to pursue an autonomous-first approach is safety. 80% of general aviation accidents are attributed to human error. Pilots are exceptionally trained and aviation in general is safer than riding in a car. However pilots are faced with the enormous task of controlling aircraft in a very dynamic environment, while communicating with air traffic controllers and avoiding other traffic, while simultaneously monitoring a suite of complex aircraft systems for anomalies and failures. Despite the most rigorous of training, it can still be difficult and tiring to manage all of this at once. As the old saying goes: “they’re only human.” Autonomy directly addresses these pilot challenges. The trend in increasing cockpit automation over the years, and the resulting increase in overall safety, further validates our autonomy approach.

At Wisk, we are embracing technology and the opportunity presented by the creation of a new market and a new service to fundamentally reimagine not only everyday flight, but overall mobility.

Through a rigorous engineering approach, ongoing community engagement and customer feedback, and direct collaboration with regulators and local, state and national leaders, we are ensuring that the future of mobility, particularly urban air mobility, is not only autonomous, but safe, accessible and reliable for all.

References: McKinsey’s Take on Aerial Mobility Pilots