Luna, a Robinson R44 modified by Skyryse, makes a fully autonomous flight above Los Angeles, California. (Skyryse)
In Los Angeles, California, Skyryse demonstrated what it calls the “world’s first fully autonomous end to end flight” of an FAA-approved helicopter. The company also unveiled its "flight stack," which it calls a set of technology that automates helicopter flight and communication systems, including “smart helipads” able to talk to nearby vehicles in real-time, detect nearby flying objects and relay local weather conditions.
In a video released by the startup, pilots can be seen releasing the controls in a modified Robinson R44 as the helicopter flies itself without any human intervention, the flight controls moving on their own.
“Wherever you tell Luna to fly, she will fly autonomously…effortlessly…safely,” the video says, referring to the modified helicopter. “Luna manages flight dynamics more quickly and accurately than a human.
Skyryse’s technology enables the aircraft to fly autonomously or “automate aspects of a flight, similar to cruise control for cars, under high-level guidance from the pilot,” according to the company, with airline-grade, fail-operational flight control automation. The system has been tested in airframes other than the R44, according to Skyryse founder and CEO Mark Groden, though he declined to name any models. Pilots are still relied upon to communicate with air traffic control.
“Think of it like fly-by-wire, simplified flight control — today, the helicopter requires, you know, collective, cyclic, pedal input for every velocity vector you want to achieve,” Groden told Avionics International. “And this totally changes the control mapping to make it possible for much less experienced people to get very good flight dynamics out of the aircraft. So the intent isn’t to autonomize it, it’s automated to make good pilots even better.”
Skyryse is betting its focus on advanced automation systems will enable it to bring safe urban air mobility to the public at a reasonable cost — even challenging the economics of commuter cars, which Groden quotes as costing $0.53 cents per seat-mile. How the company plans to achieve that, however, is vague for the moment, with more details to be revealed in 2020.
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Though today’s reveal is of a fully autonomous helicopter, Groden said Skyryse doesn’t plan on removing the pilot from the picture anytime soon, but he does believe the company can see cost savings by enabling a newly-certified helicopter pilot, with about 250 hours of flight time, to be as safe or safer than one with many thousands of hours in the air.
“If all we did was make it possible for the 250-hour helicopter pilot to fly our technology-enabled vehicle and system at the level of safety of the commercial airline, we will have in large part fixed the problem,” said Groden. “And if that aircraft can fly much more often on the back of this technology, and it’s possible to take all these fixed overhead costs — of which there are many for operating any fleet of aircraft — and amortize those costs over many more flight hours and many more passenger miles, you can change the cost structure very significantly.”
Another part of the solution is achieving higher utilization rates. According to Skyryse’s data, an unmodified R44 can fly 78 percent of calendar days in the skies above Los Angeles, and the company is “actively figuring out how to increase our flight uptime. That is one such variable we believe we will optimize in a repeatable and scalable manner,” Groden said.
Groden boldly predicts that once Skyryse’s fleet of helicopters — which it plans to operate — his company will “crush the unit economics Uber will ever be able to touch,” and cars will be used to get to and from Skyryse’s vertical flight machines. Skyryse declined to say how many R44s it will operate or how many landing areas it will have access to in LA.
“It’s an interesting claim,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group. “If I understand it, a $500,000 vehicle that breaks free of gravity, needs a high level of regulatory scrutiny and also needs a well-paid pilot, is somehow more economic than a $15,000 vehicle that does what gravity says, needs minimal inspection, and you can drive yourself. I suspect the only way that works is with extremely high levels of utilization.”
“Untenable utilization rates are exactly where people usually stumble in this industry, as we saw 15 years ago with the spectacular flameout of very light jets and air taxis,” Aboulafia added.
Skyryse is far from the only UAM-focused company betting on never-before-seen utilization rates, but it’s not yet clear how the company will achieve its goal — “anyone, anywhere, anytime” — with piloted R44s.
“This is the first piece of technology that we’re unveiling. It’s the tip of the iceberg,” Groden told Avionics. “You’ll see in coming months, there will be other big pieces of the technology that will target other aspects of what drives the costs associated with flying a vertical flight machine, helicopter or not, that will fundamentally change those unit economics.”
Urban air mobility will likely have to achieve airline-grade safety, and Skyryse’s system could play a key role in that. EASA’s special condition for certifying small VTOL aircraft, released in July 2019, requiring vehicles to match commercial airliners at a one-in-a-billion chance of catastrophic vehicle failure. FAA has yet to comment on the safety expectations surrounding eVTOL airframes, but operators will have to reach a similar benchmark for aerial mass transit to succeed — without creating unreasonable cost.
“Typically, 80% of helicopter accidents are the result of 'human factors' -- errors or decisions made by the pilot, maintainers or elsewhere in the process,” said Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society. “Increased automation holds the promise to eliminate many of these errors. In addition, when software makes an error, it can be fixed so that mistake doesn't happen again, unlike humans who worldwide make the same mistakes over and over, like deciding to fly into bad weather, for instance.”
“People talk about the additional safety of eVTOL for UAM through autonomy. Of course, that increase in safety through autonomy can be applied to helicopters as well.”
Skyryse has raised $38 million from leading investors including Venrock, Eclipse Ventures, Fontinalis, Stanford University and Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company.