Wisk CEO: Shift to Boeing ownership brings advantages
By Paul Brinkmann|June 7, 2023
Company plans to retain its startup culture and faith in autonomy
Wisk, the Silicon Valley air taxi developer that is unique in planning to inaugurate its service with fully autonomous aircraft, views the shift to being owned entirely by Boeing as a welcome turning point in its four-year history.
“Now, because we’re 100% owned by Boeing, we have much easier access to Boeing technology, intellectual property and expertise than we did before,” CEO Brian Yutko tells me. “So it’ll allow us to streamline a lot of things that, before, may have been inefficient.”
When might the first passengers fly on its aircraft? “It’ll be this decade,” Yutko says. The company had said as recently as April that receiving the required FAA certifications may take five years to a decade.
Wisk was a joint venture between Boeing and Kittyhawk, the Silicon Valley personal aircraft company that closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy in September. Boeing announced at a May 31 media event that it bought out Kittyhawk’s share of Wisk, according to The Air Current news site, making Wisk a wholly owned subsidiary. Yutko would not discuss the terms of the buyout or the amount of any new investment Boeing might have made. Under the joint venture, Boeing invested $450 million in Wisk in January 2022, one of the largest such investments in the advanced air mobility industry consisting mainly of proposed eVTOLs, electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
“Boeing is not just a capital partner. They’re also with us, a performing partner,” Yutko says. “We work together with Boeing engineers.”
At Boeing, Yutko was the vice president and chief engineer for sustainability and future mobility. In that role, he “helped champion” Wisk’s concept of operations. Plans call for supervisors on the ground to remotely monitor multiple autonomous aircraft, with no pilot on board the aircraft, therefore alleviating the need for a cockpit.
That goal stands in contrast to the rest of the advanced air mobility industry, which plans to begin passenger services with pilots on board at first and then develop remotely operated service.
“We are all in on autonomy, and we have been reminding everyone of this, everywhere we go,” Yutko says. “We are going to succeed or fail based on the ability to certify passenger-carrying autonomous aircraft — aircraft with no crew member on board.”
The supervisors will monitor multiple aircraft, their flight paths and surroundings from ground stations. Yutko’s staff shares a Zoom screen to show me a photo of a station. It has multiple display screens, keyboards and monitoring equipment.
“There’s no joystick,” Yutko says. “It’s merely a touchscreen display in most cases, where the supervisor can issue commands to the aircraft if necessary. But the aircraft will be highly automated and capable of avoiding obstacles or landing automatically in case of an emergency.”
Wisk designed the ground stations under its “vertically integrated” strategy, which means Wisk designs and assembles most of its systems and equipment in-house.
The company is testing its ground stations with conventional helicopters in flight and with simulators, he says.
Wisk will remain headquartered in Silicon Valley. Yutko reports to Wisk’s board, which is now controlled entirely by Boeing, he says.
Despite Wisk’s new status as a wholly owned subsidiary, Yutko says he doesn’t believe the company’s startup culture will suffer.
“I think we’re able to pioneer a really interesting operating model for how an aerospace company might bring these very capital-intensive projects, ultimately, to market,” he says.
Wisk continues to work on its Gen 6 prototype aircraft, a full-scale model of which the company revealed in October as a four-seat, remotely piloted tiltrotor eVTOL.
“You might see some minor changes in engineering and in the outer mold line,” Yutko says.
Is the company planning public outreach to convince prospective passengers to climb aboard an aircraft without a pilot or cockpit?
Yutko says it is not: “I don’t think we’re going to be able to market our way through that question. I think that we’re going to have to show people that it’s safe, and show people that there’s a value proposition,” he says. “There will be some amount of education that comes along with that. But the principal challenge for us right now is to get the technology and the product to a point where it can be certified.”
And Yutko says it’s his opinion that Wisk can be certified under current FAA regulations, even though officials from the agency have said there is no path toward certifying a passenger aircraft with no pilot on board.
“I think this may be one of the biggest misnomers in the industry, that the path to certification doesn’t exist. We believe it does,” he says.
Related TopicsAdvanced air mobility
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