Wisk announces autonomous eVTOL air taxi service trial in New Zealand
With the backing of aviation giant Boeing and a pilotless, 13-rotor transitioning VTOL airframe called Cora from Kitty Hawk, Wisk Aero is preparing to launch an autonomous air taxi service trial on the South Island of New Zealand, complete with actual passengers.
The trial is part of a NZ government program designed to encourage aerospace innovators to choose the small island nation as a development test bed. The Airspace Integration Trials Programme, according to the NZ government, "is dedicated to supporting the safe testing, development and market validation of advanced unmanned aircraft in New Zealand," and hopes to, "accelerate their integration into our aviation system."
That'll include delivery drone trials, as well as experiments like this one, and it's a clear sign to the aviation industry that NZ wants to open doors for these next-gen aviation pioneers that might be shut elsewhere.
Wisk (now there's a name for an experimental aviation company), formerly known as Zephyr Airworks, is independent from Kitty Hawk and Boeing, but backed by both. Kitty Hawk has provided the aircraft: its autonomous Cora 2-seater, which we first saw in 2018. It's a small, winged electric multirotor using 12 small electric rotors for VTOL liftoff, and a larger pusher prop at the back for efficient winged flight.
Presently flying under an experimental classification, the Cora currently has a top speed around 100 mph (160 km/h), a very short battery-limited range of around 25 miles (40 km) with some reserve left over, and cruises low at about 1,500 feet (460 m) off the ground. It promises to be much quieter than a helicopter.
In terms of safety it boasts plenty of redundancy thanks to its 12 rotors, three independent flight computers, and a parachute in case of total failure. That's about as good as anyone in the eVTOL world can manage right now; nobody has a workable solution yet for what happens if the lights go out in the small window during takeoff and landing when you're only 70 feet (20 m) above the ground and a parachute can't slow you in time. As we've said before, there's an opportunity there for whoever works out how to solve this "death zone" problem reliably and cheaply, because presumably every eVTOL manufacturer will need to assure both regulators and passengers that it's sorted before air taxis become a mainstream part of city life.
After logging more than 1,200 flight tests, Wisk is ready to start moving people. The initial trials will be in the region of Canterbury on the South Island, and planning is underway to determine exactly where, how and when it will begin.
All of this is dependent on Wisk obtaining certification from New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and there's been no timetable announced for that. Commercial aircraft certification can be a difficult and incredibly expensive process, and perhaps that's one area where the industrial might and deep pockets of Boeing might prove very handy. The process might be much smoother in New Zealand thanks to the CAA's Part 115 Adventure Aviation certification programme, which may be a way to get Cora into commercial operation without sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into full certification, according to Forbes.
Exciting times. Last time we visited Christchurch, it didn't seem like the kind of city that needed an air taxi service to help deal with horrible traffic congestion, but once this service is up and running, it'll be a chance for brave early adopters to get an advance taste of how we'll be getting around in the medium-term future, and we're sure those New Zealand mountain views will make for a spectacular experience. The experience of rising off the ground in a pilotless multirotor for the first time will be absolutely bizarre, and heart rates will be off the charts. Adventure aviation indeed, count us in. We'd be proud to call ourselves Wisk-takers.
See Cora flying in a video on YouTube.