Sikorsky Wants to Make Air Taxis as Safe, Reliable as Elevators

Foundational to Sikorsky entrance into the urban air taxi market is its Matrix “optimally piloted” technology that integrated an autonomous co-pilot of sorts into the cockpit. Photo: Sikorsky

In Sikorsky’s vision of future urban air mobility, people ride helicopters above the din and congestion of modern cities with the same security and piece of mind they have when riding an elevator, a contraption that people once feared but now use without second thought in buildings all over the world.

No one wanted to ride an elevator until the invention of the safety elevator by Otis, with which Sikorsky is partnering on its new urban air mobility endeavor. In a video released March 4, Sikorsky announced its partnership with the elevator manufacturer and The Spaceship Company to bring its technologies to bear on the new urban air mobility market.

“In our view, urban air mobility and that future solution has the ability to connect destinations in the same way that an elevator first started connecting floors together, allowing builders to look upwards and build skyscrapers and the modern cities we have today,” said Jonathan Hartman, disruptive technologies lead for Sikorsky Innovations.

“In order to do that, the people who use these systems have to trust them, fundamentally trust them,” he added. “While the vehicle is part of that eventual urban air mobility solution, we think a lot of those technologies are already in process and already demonstrated capability. What we’re focused on is that broader solution. How do we get to that seamless, integrated transportation experience?”

The United Nations estimates about two million people a week will move into major metropolitan areas over the next decade. Rather than develop bespoke air vehicles to address congestion issues in cities, as some of its peers have done, Sikorsky’s vision incorporate autonomous and pilot-assist technologies it already is developing together with traditional helicopters to alleviate the hassle of existing ground and public transportation.

“Urban air mobility is a topic that is gaining considerable attention and conversation within our community,” Hartman said. “The problem of mobility in cities is growing more acute as we have more folks moving into those cities and straining existing transportation infrastructure.”

Sikorsky doesn’t look at the problem of city congestion and the need for rapid mobility in and around it as a new problem. He specifically named the S-76 medium twin as a workhorse of VIP transport, EMS and cargo transport. The company has invested considerable internal research and development funds and time developing the component technologies that will make urban air mobility a reality, Hartman said.

“Helicopters are used every day in the congested, dynamic airspaces in and around cities,” Hartman said. “We have been a part of that story for a long time. … We feel very strongly there are some emerging technologies coming out that can help assist and make that mission better and those technologies we have been developing for the last decade.”

Foundational to Sikorsky entrance into the urban air taxi market is its Matrix “optimally piloted” technology that integrated an autonomous co-pilot of sorts into the cockpit. Developed through the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, Matrix is a drop-in retrofit kit that introduces autonomy into existing aircraft to lighten the workload on human crews.

Sikorsky is installing the system on a UH-60 Black Hawk for trials with the U.S. Army and recently demonstrated its capability to a group of non-pilots at Fort Eustis in Virginia.

“As part of that demonstration, we were flying folks in the non-piloting community, actually folks who had never been in or around a helicopter before,” he said. “With an hour of training in our simulator, they were able to take the MATRIX interface that is in the cockpit, in the right-hand seat and operate that air vehicle on an extended-duration mission.”

Sikorsky has moved on to thinking about how Matrix and similar technologies can be applied to future urban air mobility. It is also reinvesting in development of electric propulsion technologies, Hartman said.

“This set of technologies makes us very excited that we can work to bring a better, safer, more-affordable, more community-acceptable solution to the future urban airspace,” Hartman said.

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