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Sikorsky Researching Urban Air Mobility

This is an updated version of a story that was first published Oct. 30.

Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sikorsky is researching an autonomous vertical takeoff and landing aircraft amid competition in the nascent market for air taxis to ferry people from downtown to the suburbs, says the executive in charge of the group overseeing the project.

No longer mere science fiction, dozens of companies are designing and testing experimental versions of what could become a new generation of flying taxis. They are discussing possible regulations with the FAA, given that cities would need to coordinate safe takeoffs and landings for short-distance flights above traffic jams. Many of these concepts propose some type of electric-powered rotorcraft with the aim of eventually adding autonomous software to create reliable, self-flying taxis.

Chris Van Buiten, the vice president of Connecticut-based Sikorsky Innovations, was vague on the details about the project and set no timeline, but he was excited about its potential. He told me the aircraft will draw on the “significant progress made in autonomy” during past projects of Sikorsky and its parent Lockheed Martin. The goal, he says, is to have autonomous software that makes movement from one rooftop to another feel as simple as pushing a button to travel on an elevator. This self-guiding transportation is still uncharted territory.

“The autonomy problem is harder than the vehicle problem for us,” he says of designing and proving the safety of artificial intelligence, or AI. “Early versions will have a human operator — not a pilot but an operator. But it will quickly go to fully autonomous operation. That’s how you’ll get to scale.”

Sikorsky Innovations has already laid some groundwork for autonomous air taxis with flight tests of its Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft, a customized S-76B helicopter that flies itself guided by its sensors and powered by a supercomputer with redundant software as a precaution. Van Buiten describes the self-flying SARA as “a self-driving car on steroids” with the guidance and flight planning software it designed called Matrix Technology, which is built with the aim of being certified by the FAA to fly Sikorsky aircraft autonomously and eventually power the company’s urban aircraft.

Sikorsky engineers are also drawing on the company’s experience designing and flying an unmanned aircraft in the 1980s called the Cypher, which Van Buiten says was “20 years ahead of its time.” The Cypher flew with a straightforward design of a sensor pod propped above a central fan for lift, which could hint at unconventional new designs by Sikorsky or other competitors aiming for convenient urban air travel.

The sales pitch of many startups and companies designing new vertical takeoff craft is that their design improves on the shortcomings of helicopters, including by reducing noise and potentially increasing rotor safety and fuel efficiency with distributed electric propulsion.

Van Buiten stopped short of guaranteeing that his group’s new urban aircraft would be electric, but says, “that’s a good bet.” In fact, he wouldn’t confirm if the new vehicle will be a rotorcraft, but he says advances in electric propulsion make it easier for companies to choose rotorcraft designs for their air taxi concepts.

Sikorsky’s Firefly electric helicopter, he says, shows “that electric propulsion can dramatically simplify a helicopter” because it can power multiple propellers and reduce risks in case some of them fail.

Sikorsky Innovations did ground tests of the Firefly in 2010 but Van Buiten says they never flew the helicopter because battery technology limits at that time meant “we would have been able to fly it for only about five minutes.” Fortunately, 2010 was “eons ago by electric helicopter standards,” he says, so advances in batteries and electric propulsion are giving companies a chance to pursue new designs.

None of these aeronautics and software feats will matter, however, if people don’t feel safe flying in them.

“Until you are wiling to put your family on board, you have a toy,” Van Buiten says of urban aircraft, paraphrasing Dan Newman, a senior technical fellow at Boeing.

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Aircraft Design

“Early versions will have a human operator — not a pilot but an operator. But it will quickly go to fully autonomous operation. That’s how you’ll get to scale.”

Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Sikorsky Innovations
In the 1980s Sikorsky’s Cypher flew with a straightforward design of a sensor pod propped above a central fan for lift. Credit: Sikorsky

Sikorsky Researching Urban Air Mobility

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