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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Want a Flying Car Future? Try Starting With Smarter Helicopters

Visions of the future tend to be clear-cut. Cars will drive themselves. Air taxis will fill the skies. Smartphones will have notches. The renderings and trend reports tend to elide the messy road map to that future. Yes, advances in lightweight materials, electric propulsion, and aeronautic controls have put the dream of electric people-packing quadcopter drones within reach. A few more years of development, a few more after that of regulatory wrangling, and boom: takeoff.

But while an armada of companies are working on delivering that new class of aircraft, one California startup isn't waiting for the invention of the hydraulic shovel to get in on this gold rush. It's headed into the mines, pickax in hand.

“All of those things have a future in aviation, but it’s going to take a really long time,” says SkyRyse CEO Mark Groden. Instead of holding off until those electric VTOLs are ready, his company is developing tools to make flying helicopters easier, safer, and cheaper by taking the load off the human pilot. It's like the airborne equivalent of Tesla's Autopilot, a step between what we have now, and the the ubiquitous electric, autonomous, flying machines envisioned by the likes of Uber, Airbus, and Bell Helicopter.

Of course, being a startup newly out of stealth with $25 million in funding, SkyRyse has plenty of ambition—and the associated buzzwords and boasts. SkyRyse is “the first technology-enabled air mobility company to operate in the US,” according to a press release. “One day we expect to be the largest transportation company in the world,” Groden says.

For now, the company seems to be taking an unusually reserved and realistic approach to making short distance air travel more accessible, starting by modifying a Robinson R44 helicopter. “The Toyota Camry of the sky,” Groden calls it, for its ubiquity among law enforcement agencies, first responders, and traffic and news crews. His team retrofit the copter with cameras for a 360-degree exterior view, forward-looking radar, a computer to process the data, and a screen to display pertinent information for the pilot. Groden wouldn't offer much more than that in the way of details, but SkyRyse is looking to hire perception and sensing software engineers, along with flight control and avionics experts. It already has recruited aerospace expertise from Airbus, Boeing, and SpaceX, as well as engineers from Tesla, Ford, and the US military.

To prove its concept, SkyRyse struck a deal with the small city of Tracy, California, about 60 miles inland from Silicon Valley. It’s providing flights for first responders, including police and fire personnel, to scenes of medical emergencies. When a request for help comes in, those first responders contact SkyRyse, whose employees head to the municipal airport and ready the chopper. (There's no running, Groden insists—adrenaline spikes aren't useful here.) The company has analyzed every step of a deployment, aiming to reduce the time it takes to get into the air.

“We can get skids off the ground significantly faster,” says Groden. The company doesn’t want to give away all its secrets yet, but it involves giving the pilots more information to speed things up without compromising safety. For example, traditionally a helicopter pilot will do a manual check to make sure the entire area is clear before spinning up the blades. That can even involve opening the door and looking around. With SkyRyse’s camera, that can be done on a screen, or automated. Once in the air, the helicopter’s radar provides extra information about the terrain below, helpful when visibility is poor. The pilot is still in full control, but hopefully has a slightly easier job and a lower cognitive load.

For a city like Tracy, population 89,000, buying and running a helicopter, including paying for pilots, costs millions of dollars. Calling in air support when it’s needed is also expensive. An urgent hospital transfer by helicopter can run $10,000 to $30,000 per flight. When a local girl went missing a few years ago, authorities called in a C130 plane from the Coast Guard to help with the search, at a cost of $10,000 per hour.

SkyRyse says it can provide the same services at an order of magnitude lower cost with high utilization. Having one helicopter stationed in Tracy, on call to any emergency service, means it gets used extensively. The technology fitted to it helps by reducing the time and complexity for takeoff and flight.

So far, the company has delivered an old helicopter with some fancy new features. And that's the point. It's starting with something deliverable, with concrete improvements. SkyRyse is looking to a future when more of the tasks of flying can be handled by automation. That’s optimistic, but not unreasonable—other established firms like Sikorsky and Aurora Flight Sciences are developing self-flying helicopters.

“Technology is doing a really great job to connect us virtually, but not physically,” says Groden, who has been building drones and flying machines since his teens. (He's now 28.) One day he wants to fix that, with an app that will summon a flying machine, like you summon a car today, but he’s agnostic about what that machine is. If electric flying cars have been perfected, great. If not, he’ll make the best use of the available tech.

As others like Uber, which has the same ambition, are finding, the regulatory hurdles to launching a flying car service with a innovative type of aircraft are not so easily cleared. But by starting modestly now, working with first responders, collecting data, and building deliverable technology, SkyRyse hopes to be riding the crest of a wave in new air transportation that looks promising for the 2020s.

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