Skyryse Says Autonomy Will Let Helicopter Taxis Compete with Ridesharing

With technology allowing lightly trained pilots to fly traditional helicopters on tight schedules, LA startup Skyryse aims to radically cut the cost of air travel in a couple years.

By Sean Captain

Vertiflite, March/April 2020

Most stories of air taxis are all about the aircraft — with futuristic visions of multi-rotor, morphing electric vehicles presented by Uber, Boeing, Joby, Airbus, Lilium and many others. Los Angeles-based air taxi startup Skyryse (www.skyryse.com) looks downright dull in comparison, with photos of the humdrum Robinson R44 helicopter — which Skyryse calls the “Toyota Camry of the sky” for its ubiquity and utility.

It’s only on close inspection that you see the company’s tech innovation — the pilot with hands resting on his lap as the R44 flies itself. Skyryse showed this capability off in late December with video of an autonomous flight over Los Angeles, California.

Skyryse founder and CEO Mark Groden (Emily Sevin Photography for Skyryse)

“The only way to get there is by building on the back of proven technology,” said Mark Groden, the company’s 30-year-old co-founder and CEO. He sees electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) as the ultimate form of mass urban air transport — for cost and environmental reasons — but claims that developing and certifying radically new airframes will delay consumer-priced air taxis far longer than necessary. Rival services like Blade and Voom make a similar argument for starting with today’s technology.

Instead, Skyryse is building its business on already certified helicopters and focusing its tech efforts on developing autonomous technology to tackle what Groden calls the biggest cost burden — the pilot. “The average number of hours [of experience] that we find acceptable to hire pilots at is 6,000 hours,” said Groden — an extremely high standard that he feels is necessary to ensure the operator can handle any possible emergency. And with the recent helicopter crash that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant and eight others, scrutiny on helicopters is especially high.

Skyryse can’t afford to hire enough ultra-experienced pilots to offer service for the masses; it’s aiming for price-parity with Uber and Lyft car shares. So it’s bridging the skills gap with software — an autonomous pilot system called the Skyryse Flight Stack. Groden claims that the company’s modified R44, dubbed Luna, can fly itself as smoothly as one of his 6,000-hour pilots can.

But he isn’t advocating a jump to full autonomy. Instead, Flight Stack will give Skyryse the confidence to hire lesser-experienced pilots, using a simplified control system that also prevents the craft from exceeding its flight envelope. “If you want to push the helicopter in any direction, it ensures that you do that in a safe way,” said Groden.

Flight Stack gives Skyryse the ability to hire lesser-experienced pilots, using a simplified control system that also prevents the craft from exceeding its flight envelope. (All photos courtesy of Skyryse)

One of the key achievements of Flight Stack, he said, is that it maintains stability without requiring the pilot to constantly nudge the controls. “The amount of practice it takes to be proficient at every possible degraded state of flight in handling those states is really, really significant,” said Groden. “And what we’re creating is this system so that a pilot with less experience flying the aircraft can be as safe, if not safer.” Even for master pilots, Groden said that Flight Stack will lessen the “cognitive load” of tending to the helicopter’s stability, allowing them to focus on specific challenges, like bad weather and poor visibility.

Groden built Skyryse’s first autonomous flight system that debuted in March 2017 and piloted a modified Mosquito XE285 ultralight helicopter for 15 minutes at a small airport in Silver Springs, Nevada. But the current Flight Stack has been built from the ground up under Skyryse’s chief technology officer Gonzalo Rey. The former of CTO of Moog, Rey oversaw work on the flight control actuation systems for the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 airliners. JetBlue co-founder Brian Coulter joined as Skyryse’s Chief Operating Officer. Skyryse has also recruited veterans from companies such as Airbus, Boeing, Ford, JetSuite, SpaceX, Tesla and Uber. It has attracted $38M from investors that include Venrock, Eclipse Ventures, Fontinalis, Stanford University and Ford Motor Company’s executive chairman Bill Ford.

Hands Free flying (with a safety pilot on board) demonstrates the high level of autonomy developed for the Skyryse Flight Stack. (All photos courtesy of Skyryse)

Aspiring to Dullness
Flight Stack extends beyond the helicopter. Skyryse has designed a smart helipad that communicates with the aircraft’s autonomous software, conveying information such as windspeed and direction, to synchronize landings. The pads also sense low-flying obstacles such as birds or drones. That’s all meant to make flights not only safer but smoother — providing a routine experience akin to riding an elevator.

Groden claims his technology can also make helicopters more appealing to people on the ground by eliminating the signature thump-thump sound of rotors. This is possible, he said, by precisely controlling the aircraft’s speed and position, and accounting for wind, so that the blades never smack into the wakes made by one another. Skyryse discovered the method while training its flight algorithms. “Without the automated systems that we’re working on, we wouldn’t have been able to figure out exactly how to put those inputs in and what the inputs are,” said Groden.

Much of Flight Stack’s training occurred during a beta program last summer, providing standard piloted service to more than a thousand customers on 34-mile (55-km) trips between John Wayne Airport in Orange County and downtown Los Angeles. “We gathered a lot of data on consumer behavior, flight patterns, real world logistics,” said Groden.

Passengers paid $149 each way, including car service to and from the helipads. That’s already a breakthrough. Blade, the biggest on-demand helicopter service in the US, flies for as little as $195 on its airport shuttle flights in New York City. Uber Copter’s New York shuttle starts at $200. And Airbus-owned Voom offers airport shuttles in the San Francisco Bay Area for about $250. None of these prices include car service.

Skyryse has designed a smart helipad that communicates with the aircraft’s autonomous software.

But $149 — comparable to a luxury car service like Uber Black — is still far from accessible to the masses. Skyryse opted to shut down its beta service to focus on perfecting Flight Stack. With the full system, Skyryse claims it can keep operating costs low and achieve ultra-fast turnaround to compete with the price of today’s car services in heavily congested cities like LA. Take that route that Skyryse flew over the summer: each leg took about 16 minutes by air versus two hours or more by car during high-traffic periods. In theory, that allows Skyryse to ferry about eight times as many passengers by helicopter as by car. “We can reach costs that will beat the currently available seat mile [cost] of the commuter car sometime in the next couple of years,” claims Groden.

He declines to get more specific, though, in terms of when a service will be up and running, or how large the offering will be. Groden won’t even commit to saying where Skyryse will first operate. Although when asked, he does emphasize that his is an LA-based company.

Competitors are getting specific. Uber and its partners have pledged to launch their eVTOL taxi service, Elevate, in Los Angeles, as well as Dallas and Melbourne, Australia. Demonstrations are slated to begin this year, with commercial service starting by 2023. Uber and its partners are also pursuing autonomous technology for the coming taxis. As with Skyryse, they envision it beginning as an aid for pilots rather than an immediate pilot replacement.

Uber has said it expects its flights to cost about as much as its car service today, although it makes no promises to be anywhere near breaking even at launch in 2023. Given its history with car share and food delivery, Uber is clearly prepared to lose money for several years as it tries to corner the market in a city.

Groden for his part said that Skyryse won’t launch until it can afford to offer flights priced for the mass market. And with a lot less funding, it can’t afford to throw money at buying market share.

Skyryse trained its autonomy algorithms by providing piloted airport shuttle service between nearby John Wayne Airport and downtown Los Angeles.

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