This Autonomous Air Taxi Could Be Your Next Uber video     – CNET

This Autonomous Air Taxi Could Be Your Next Uber video – CNET

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Science

Speaker 1: This could be the future of transport, how you get to work in the morning or maybe to the airport in time for your flight. But instead of getting into a car with a driver on the road, you get into a fully autonomous aerial vehicle in the sky. This is the sixth generation whisk aircraft, [00:00:30] an electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that’s designed to take off from Verti ports anywhere in a crowded city and get you where you need to go. All for roughly $3 per passenger mile. Wsc says the Gen six is the world’s first self flying all electric for passenger ev toll, an air taxi that will redefine transportation and reshape the skies. High flying aviation meets on demand ground [00:01:00] transport, making a short hop flight as easy as ordering an Uber.

Speaker 2: The problem we’re trying to solve is super congested cities like la, New York, London, Mumbai SA Palo, where you’re stuck in a car for an hour and a half for two hours. You might have 20 to 40 miles to go and you have no idea when you’re gonna get to the other end. And so our flights are designed to be 10 to 20 minutes roughly, and it’s soft flying. So there’s no pilot.

Speaker 1: It’s an ambitious goal and one that will need a lot of community buy-in. We’ll [00:01:30] need to rethink the way we design cities and individual passengers will need to put their faith in the machine. But Whisk says it’s the company to do it and the Gen six aircraft is the vehicle to get us there. We went behind the scenes at Whisk for an up close look at how this vision for the future will actually work.

Speaker 1: Wsc was born out of Kittyhawk, the aviation company created by Google co-founder Larry Page. After creating five generations of [00:02:00] aircraft, including its fifth gen autonomous concept known as Cora Kittyhawk joined forces with Boeing in 2019 to create Whisk. A company focused entirely on autonomous aviation, Kittyhawk Shutted in 2022, but it’s designed some prototypes stayed with Whisk and now the company has built on those prototypes with Gen six, the aircraft it plans on taking to market and flying on mass with gen six. Whisk did a major redesign. [00:02:30] It increased the wingspan up to 50 feet from chorus 33 feet and made the cabin bigger carrying four passengers instead of two. And while Whisk stuck with the electric vertical takeoff and landing or EV toll design of the previous generation, it totally redesigned the propulsion. Forget everything you know about a traditional aircraft, which taxis along a runway for a long takeoff like that with electrical, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft like this one. You’ve got propellers that provide [00:03:00] you that vertical lift. Then these propellers at the front here rotate around to give you propulsion in flight. The idea is that you can forget the runway you just take off vertically, fly through the air and then land straight back down.

Speaker 1: The other big focus for whisk is autonomy. While there are plenty of companies vying for dominance in the EV toll space, many of them are starting out with pilots behind the controls. Instead, Whisk says its first flights [00:03:30] will be unpiloted taking off, flying and landing or autonomously, but there will still be humans in the loop. Each aircraft will be overseen by multi vehicle supervisors working on the ground and watching as many as 10 aircraft at once.

Speaker 2: Think of the supervisors that we have on the ground. They’re more like air traffic controllers. They’re just watching the planes. They’re seeing if there’s any emergencies or any things where they have to intervene, but for the most part they won’t. They’ll just watch.

Speaker 1: According to [00:04:00] whisk, 93% of pilot controls in commercial aircraft today are already automated. They say going fully autonomous with vehicle supervisors on the ground watching multiple aircraft at once is not as much of a leap as we may think.

Speaker 2: You could think about it as that pilot is stepped out of the aircraft and offloaded those repetitive tasks that weren’t really the best use of their capabilities. Let’s say

Speaker 1: Full automation doesn’t just mean taking off steering and keeping the plane stable. According to whisk, [00:04:30] computers have been doing those jobs for decades with this aircraft. The company also had to create a system capable of more high level tasks that a pilot would normally handle. Things like looking for hazards, being aware of other aircraft and flight paths and changing course if a hazard appears. But the automation is still based on strict logic.

Speaker 2: It’s not just sort of thinking arbitrarily by itself and deciding it wants to land at a different place today versus yet, you know yesterday, right? [00:05:00] Um, it’s all very kind of procedural and rule based. So no matter what happens, even if we lose our link to the ground, the aircraft is able to maintain safe flight and landing.

Speaker 1: Still no crew in the plane means a very different flight experience for passengers. All the information is gonna come through on this screen rather than a flight attendant walking down the aisle to talk to you. Cuz I dunno if you can see, but there is no aisle on this aircraft. So the idea is that you get your safety messages. You can even speak to a concierge. [00:05:30] Uh, there’s a help button above me because of course there’s no one physically in the plane. All of this is managed by a controller down on the ground. So while there’s no pilot, there is a human in the loop in this system, but I’m just in here with my fellow passengers, can’t smoke. Is anyone still trying to smoke on a plane anyway? Sitting in the cabin of the Gen six feels a lot like sitting in a new car minus the steering wheel. [00:06:00] But while it might feel like an autonomous vehicle, whisk says Unpiloted aircraft are a long way from full self-driving cars.

Speaker 2: The space that we’re operating in, literally the sky is like completely wide open. When you compare to how cluttered our ground environment is, there’s clear airspace that’s defined. There’s processes for interacting with air traffic control and none of that exists on the ground. It’s sort of like, uh, you know, the Wild West, honestly, when you’re out there driving on the 1 0 1,

Speaker 1: Not only that, but Whisk needs FAA certification [00:06:30] to fly. That means having strict procedures built into its autonomous systems so the plane can handle any eventuality. It also means meeting a standard called 10 to the minus nine, or a one in 1 billion chance of having an accident. But getting the FAA on side is only part of the picture. City full of air taxis is a big change from today. Verta ports for taking off and landing infrastructure that supports last mile transport in [00:07:00] the skies. All of that requires a lot of community buy-in. A whisk is optimistic.

Speaker 2: Last roadway is less bridges, less parking structures. Can you turn things into parks in city center? So we have kind of a different view of it that this is actually an incredible positive that we can transform cities to be more multipurpose instead of just like concrete and asphalt.

Speaker 1: This Gen six aircraft is just a demo model. There are no batteries and it can’t fly. [00:07:30] To become a citywide transport solution, whisk is going to need scale. That’s one of the reasons it’s going autonomous. The thinking is when you don’t need one highly trained pilot for every four passengers in an aircraft. You can get more air taxis in the sky, but it’s also hoping that backing from Boeing will help it reach the scale it needs. And it has big targets.

Speaker 2: We’re gonna do a 20 city rollout within the first five years of launch, and we expect to have a little less than 5,000 [00:08:00] aircraft moving close to by 2035, close to 300 million passengers. And so it’s not that hard to scale this. If we make it affordable, we make it UberX like pricing.

Speaker 1: But plenty of companies have had this dream and plenty have closed or consolidated along the way. Not least of all Kittyhawk. After a decade of building aircraft and starting the whisk joint venture with Boeing, Kittyhawk announced it was winding down its business in September, 2022. [00:08:30] Dyson says the move doesn’t have any impact on Whisk and that all Kittyhawks patents have stayed with a new company. But there’s no doubt there’s a lot of upheaval in this space. In fact, one company, SMG Consulting, even has an advanced air mobility reality index ranking. How likely it is that each company in the industry will get something off the ground, Literally, for what it’s worth, Whisk was ranked sixth as of August, 2022. Can whisk get [00:09:00] 300 million passengers in the sky by 2035? Well, it’ll need to build the aircraft, get them certified, and convince the community. That’s a lot of people to get on board even before the first passenger. So would you get into an unpiloted autonomous aerial vehicle that takes off vertically from a verti port around the city? I’m kind of excited by the concept. It certainly feels weird, but then I suppose getting into a total strangers car felt weird when Uber first hit town. [00:09:30] Maybe this is just the next iteration of travel. Who knows whether we see it in the air anytime soon. That is the big question. Driver. I’m ready. Oh wait. There’s no driver.

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Claire Reilly

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