Wisk Aero calls for early adoption of autonomous vertiports
By Paul Brinkmann|April 21, 2022
Wisk and London-based vertiport builder Skyports say air taxi infrastructure should anticipate unpiloted craft
California-based Wisk Aero has issued a plea to the emerging air taxi industry to ensure that the first airports, or vertiports, are outfitted to handle autonomous flight.
Wisk has raised $770 million for its plan to develop autonomous air taxis powered by electricity and rotors. Unlike many other electric vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL, companies, Wisk has no plans to build piloted aircraft first.
“Our industry is moving quickly toward autonomous aircraft,” Torrie Meliska, the Wisk product manager for vertiports, told me in an interview. “Vertiports are beginning to be built right now and if they are not built for autonomous aircraft, it renders them obsolete very quickly. So this is really to ensure that vertiports are future-proofed for our aircraft and everyone’s.”
Wisk and London-based Skyports published a white paper on April 12 describing a proposed Concept of Operations, or ConOps, for vertiports. The paper describes how such eVTOLs, especially autonomous versions, should interact with their fleet operator and the vertiports.
“The addition of autonomous eVTOL aircraft to existing infrastructure will require upgrades, retrofits, and procedure changes to accommodate safe operations,” the white paper says.
Wisk and others in the industry expect a wide variety of vertiport types in the early days of the industry, Meliska said. Vertiports may at first be added to existing airports, especially smaller private facilities. Some may be on top of buildings, like heliports, but many standalone vertiports also are expected, she said.
The cost to retrofit such vertiports for autonomous operations would depend largely on how big they are and what type they are, but those costs could hamper growth of the industry, she said.
One of the most costly and difficult systems that would need upgrading for autonomous craft would be communications, Meliska said. Whereas traditional airports rely heavily on voice communications between traffic control and pilots, autonomous craft would communicate digitally with vertiports outfitted for them, she said.
“If our aircraft or [another] autonomous aircraft is approaching to land and someone runs out, and it no longer becomes a safe place to land, the vertiport can’t call the pilot on the aircraft and say, ‘Hey, wait,’” Meliska said. “So there needs to be other systems in place to alert the aircraft that it needs to trigger its hazard avoidance systems, and pull up and execute a missed approach.”
Some eVTOL companies, like California-based Joby Aviation, plan to start passenger service on piloted craft in 2024. But Wisk, which has more than $450 million in funding from Boeing, plans to move directly to autonomous craft in five to 10 years, Meliska said.
Wisk’s Concept of Operations also discusses what would happen after a landing following a missed approach or other emergency.
“There will be coordination between the vertiport, the FOC [Flight Operations Center] and any additional traffic” in the area, “to determine whether the aircraft is able to recommence takeoff or if it must return to a stand,” the paper says. “This rapid coordination will leverage highly-autonomized scheduling systems and active communication with all affected parties. Once an updated flight plan has been filed with all parties involved, the aircraft can resume operations.”
Wisk executives and engineers are using the paper in discussions with development partners and cities where they may focus their first efforts, a Wisk spokesperson told me.