Revolution.Aero Uplift: NASA Wisk-y business

Deep Dive

It is impossible to know now which organisations will feature in the history of Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) when it is written in 50 years. But there are two which will be more than footnotes whatever happens. One is Uber, which encouraged many when it announced Elevate. The other is NASA, which this week announced a partnership with Wisk as part of its national campaign to further AAM.

We are developing an AAM proving ground to collect standardised data from many industry partners to support certification and ensure partners will integrate into air traffic management systems of today and tomorrow,” Davis Hackenberg, advanced air mobility mission manager, NASA told Revolution.Aero.

We fly autonomous missions all the time that are successful, going to space stations, moons and other planets,” he adds. NASA has also worked with both traditional and non-traditional aerospace companies in the past. This, along with Wisk’s self-flying aircraft Cora, with its 1,000-plus successful flying hours, has made the partnership a natural next step.

Wisk brings a tremendous amount of experience in eVTOL vehicle development, automation technologies and flight test and combines it with a safety-first mindset towards advancing autonomous flight,” said Robert Pearce, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.

NASA is continuing many of its recent partnerships in the UAS industry and forming new alliances specific to AAM, which Hackenberg says include some strong players. It is currently working with 11 aerospace companies – Alaka’i Technologies, which is currently building a hydrogen-powered eVTOL, is the latest.

“Partnerships like Wisk and others that develop full-vehicle automation architectures will anchor the industry, while the aviation industry’s traditional subsystem providers have depth and experience developing and certifying automation technologies,” said Hackenberg.

NASA will forge more partnerships in automation in 2021, to run simulations and tests. And it is these tests that Hackenberg believes will reveal the leaders not only to NASA but to everyone in the space.

UAM Maturity Levels

If you’re reading this, you are probably familiar with JP Morgan and Citi Group’s forecasts for timelines and figures for profitability of the UAM market. NASA has its own – the UAM Maturity Levels (UML) – timeline spanning six UML states from initial to mature.

UML1, or the initial state, is conforming prototypes for certification and operations testing in limited environments. This is where we are now with none of the aircraft yet certificated.

“UML 2 is the initial commercial operations. The timeframe the industry is pushing for – the target that we lay out and we think is doableis 2024. There is evidence to support the claim that we’ll have some certified UAM eVTOLs able to do commercial operations by around that time and then scaling those operations up becomes the challenge,” said Hackenberg.

UML4 is once automation has been scaled and companies establish medium density operations. Hackenberg says this could be anytime between 2028-2032 or later depending on the success of the industry. And UML6 is ubiquitous operations with system-wide automated optimisation.

When we study our roadmaps, we all agree it’s hard but also that it can be done. We laid out a progression through the national campaigns and UMLs and if industry is checking those progressive boxes and proving the necessary capabilities exist, they’re on time. If they’re not, then we all need to our timelines,” he said.

“There are many facets to it. It is going to take a lot, the whole industry and localities working together. We think the national campaign is a good place to emphasise some of that.”

There is a strong argument to be made for more partnerships such as NASA and Wisk. One of the biggest reasons is to combine the experience of a uniquely experienced government agency and veteran in aerospace with a new-tech innovator.

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