An air taxi without a pilot aboard? This developer is seeking permission under existing regulations
By Paul Brinkmann|October 21, 2022
Wisk Aero sees flexibility in FAA language
For FAA, certifying electric air taxis to fly without a pilot aboard won’t be done anytime soon.
“We’re looking at 2026 or 2028 when we need to be in remotely piloted [certification], and right behind that, we need to be in autonomous,” FAA’s David Boulter, acting associate administrator for aviation safety, told attendees on Tuesday at the National Business Aviation Association’s annual conference in Orlando.
Boulter declined to provide more details on that timeline when I asked after the panel concluded, referring my questions to FAA communications staff.
So, I took up the question of remotely piloted certification with an executive at a company that has staked its future on such operations, California-based electric aircraft developer Wisk Aero.
Wisk has at times said it will pursue a path toward autonomous flight of passenger aircraft. At other times, the company has said its aircraft will be remotely monitored by pilots. Either way, it plans to start services without a pilot aboard.
“When it comes to autonomy or monitored flight, we kind of go back and forth,” said Dan Dalton, Wisk’s vice president of global partnerships, when I met him Wednesday at the company’s display area at the NBAA event. “The fact of the matter is the aircraft will be making many decisions for itself but will be supervised by a human on the ground.”
He said the company will “take advantage of whatever comes out of the FAA to move the ball forward.”
Specifically, Wisk intends to have a pilot in command, or PIC, who will supervise multiple vehicles in flight, Dalton said.
Dalton is a commercially rated pilot himself and has a degree in engineering. He worked for nine years at the U.S. Department of Energy, where he concluded his tenure as director of nuclear threat science.
Dalton said Wisk has submitted its G-1 form, the first document required for FAA aircraft type certification and is working on the G-2 form.
Asked if Wisk believes there’s a path forward to certify its aircraft and operations as remotely piloted, Dalton said he believes existing regulations allow “detailed conversations” on such certification. For example, when FAA requires that a pilot be able to “see and avoid” collisions in Part 91 of its regulations, regarding general operating and flight rules for civil aircraft, Dalton said he thinks Wisk and others can make a case that technology can perform the same tasks while also being monitored remotely by a human pilot.
“The regulations were written in a flexible enough manner that should emerging technologies such as this come out, the regs don’t have to be changed to certify those aircraft,” Dalton told me.
When I pressed for details, Dalton said he believes Congress, FAA and NASA will support certification of mostly autonomous aircraft because he and many others believe such technology is vital to U.S. leadership in aviation.
“It’s not going to be easy or necessarily written out anywhere, but I think the FAA is a good partner in trying to get that to happen,” he said.
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