Certifying Autonomous Air Taxis

May 31, 2023

— by Cindy Comer, Wisk’s Director of Certification and Safety Management System

  • Certification is a way to ensure safety, protect the public and ensure public trust
  • “Full certification” is a robust and complex process that includes the certification of the aircraft, manufacturing, and operations 
  • Certification of autonomous air taxis has a clear path and is happening today, as Wisk has already submitted a Type Certification application and is making progress on its G-1 and G-2

Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) has taken center stage in the public eye over the past several years. Whether piloted — or, in our case, autonomous — the general public is aware of electric vertical takeoff and landing air taxis and the promise they bring to transform the way we move. 

However, what isn’t as well-known among the general public is the FAA’s process for bringing this new type of aircraft to market — specifically what needs to be certified and the process of certification. To help, we’re going to  share what it means to be certified and how the certification process works — including the types of certification (what needs to be certified) and the initial phases of Type Certification. We will also discuss and clarify some of the common misconceptions around the certification of autonomy. 

Note: Certification is a robust and complex process, and is critical to ensuring safety and the public’s trust in an aircraft and its operator. For the purposes of this story, we will focus on a high-level overview of the FAA’s certification process — specifically the standard Type Certification process. For more detailed information on FAA certification, visit https://www.faa.gov/

What is Certification?

Before we dive into the nuanced details of certification, let’s take a step back to understand what exactly “certification” means and its importance in aviation.  

Certification is “how the FAA manages risk through safety assurance.” It affirms that a proposed aircraft or operation will meet the FAA safety regulations in order to protect the public. The FAA documents its approval to the regulations through the issuance of a certificate.

Certification Types

Broadly speaking, there are three primary certificates: the Aircraft Certificate (a Type Certificate for design and an Airworthiness Certificate for individual aircraft), the Production Certificate, and the Operations Certificate. For air taxi developers and operators, each of these certificates must be given before a paying passenger ever takes their first flight. 

Primary 4 certification types

  • A Type Certificate (TC) is the FAA’s approval that an aircraft design is safe and replicable; it allows the manufacturer to produce limited aircraft of the approved design. A manufacturer must prove its design and initial build processes before a Type Certificate can be issued. It is also worth noting that the aircraft design cannot be changed without restarting at least part of the process. 
  • A Production Certificate is the FAA’s approval that a manufacturer has proven that its production system is capable of ensuring every aircraft will be built in conformance with its Type Certificate and thus can continue to produce aircraft with reduced FAA oversight. A manufacturer must have a Type Certificate and have proven that they can build aircraft in conformance with the Type Certificate before a Production Certificate can be issued. This process can run concurrently with the Type Certification Process. 
  • The Operating Certificate is the FAA’s approval that an aircraft operator has met all the requirements and has demonstrated all of the proper procedures and training for its staff. Only after securing this certificate is an operator allowed to perform their intended revenue service. 

In addition to these three certificates, each individual aircraft is issued an Airworthiness Certificate and is the FAA’s approval that a specific aircraft is allowed to fly. There are two types of Airworthiness Certificates:

  • The FAA issues a Standard Airworthiness Certificate to an individual aircraft that is built in conformance with its Type Certificate. This signifies that the FAA has deemed that specific aircraft to be approved for revenue service purposes. A manufacturer must have an issued Type Certificate before a Standard Airworthiness Certificate can be issued. 
  • A Special Airworthiness Certificate is issued by the FAA for aircraft certificated in categories other than “standard” — for example, Restricted, Experimental, Limited, Light-Sport, etc. The aircraft may be safely operated under limitations established by the FAR and/or as prescribed by the issuing FAA inspector. Many air taxi developers today — including Wisk — conduct test flights under this type of airworthiness certificate.

To summarize, all air taxi developers with the goal of being both an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and an operator must have all 3 certificates. Each individual aircraft must also receive an Airworthiness Certificate.

Certification Process: Type Certification

Each certificate has its own process, however, the Type Certificate is typically the first step for OEMs and is needed to pursue the Production and Airworthiness Certificates.

While there is no shortage of unique designs within the AAM space (ex. powered lift, ducted vectored thrust, tilt rotor, etc.), every company must follow the same type certification process, regardless of the design. By completing this process, the company is able to prove that it meets the regulations and requirements set forth by the FAA to ensure safety. 

There are several phases to the Type Certification process. The initial phases involve the G-1 and G-2 issue papers. The G-1 Issue Paper outlines the Certification Basis for the OEM’s Type Certificate — in other words, what regulations it must meet to prove that the aircraft is safe for flight and for the OEM’s intended use case. The G-2 issue paper shows the OEM’s means of compliance, or how specifically the company will demonstrate that it has met the requirements outlined in the G-1.

The an overview of the certification process

The next phase of the certification process involves the building of a conforming aircraft, testing to demonstrate that the aircraft has met the requirements outlined in the G-1 and G-2 issue papers, the development of an operator’s manual, demonstrating and verifying with the FAA, and more.

Certifying Autonomy

At Wisk, we’re pursuing a self-flying first approach, which means our aircraft flies itself. However, each flight is monitored by a human on the ground, a “Multi-vehicle supervisor.” Despite the autonomous aspects of our aircraft, we follow the same Type Certification process as all other aircraft. There are no differences or additional steps between our Certification process and that of our piloted peers.

However, there are two common misconceptions about the certification of autonomous, passenger-carrying aircraft and operations: 1) there is not a clear path to certification for autonomy and 2) the certification of a self-flying air taxi is not going to happen until well into the next decade 

Both of these beliefs are incorrect. There is a path for the certification of an autonomous air taxi and it’s happening today.

The FAA has been working to certify increasingly automated systems for years (e.g., modern flight decks, autopilots, TCAS, autothrottle, etc.), which has created a foundation for the certification of autonomous systems. We’re building on that foundation by integrating software and hardware with rigorous engineering design. These systems will follow the same development processes and certification frameworks used for automated systems in aircraft today. 

Ultimately, autonomy breaks down into hardware and software — and there is a well-defined certification path for both of these already in place today. By working in close partnership with the FAA and within the existing certification framework, we know we will be able to certify the first autonomous eVTOL air taxi in the U.S. within this decade.

This is evident by the progress we are currently making on our previously submitted Type Certification application and on our G-1 and G-2 issue papers. 

Safe, Everyday Flight for Everyone

At Wisk, our goal is to deliver safe, everyday flight for everyone. We are designing our aircraft to meet or exceed the highest possible aviation standard. This ensures that taking a Wisk is just as safe as getting on an airplane. Certification is the process by which we can ensure that we achieve this goal and the FAA’s issuance of a certificate is the third-party, unbiased validation that we have met our goal. We are excited about the progress we are making on our previously submitted Type Certification application, and on our G-1 and G-2 issue papers.