AAM Spotlight: Brian Yutko, Wisk CEO

Brian Yutko

Credit: Wisk Aero

Based in Mountain View, California, Boeing-backed Wisk Aero is working to certify its Generation 6 electric-vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) air taxi as one of the first autonomous, passenger-carrying aircraft in the world. In a recent conversation with the AAM Report, Wisk’s new CEO Brian Yutko–formerly a chief engineer at Boeing–sat down with Managing Editor Ben Goldstein to discuss his company’s vision for autonomous urban air mobility (UAM). A partial transcript follows:

AAM Report: How would you describe the vision of Wisk?

Yutko: Our vision is to bring safe, affordable, everyday flight to everyone. The way we’re going to do that is by certifying Gen 6, which we believe will be the world’s first passenger-carrying autonomous aircraft. For the first time, a company will be able to collect a revenue dollar for safely carrying a passenger between an origin and destination without a pilot on board. A big part of getting there is making sure that the technology development work we’re doing moves at a quick pace that aligns with our positive sense of urgency–but without rushing anything. It’s about balancing the development pace with safety, to make sure that what we’re delivering to the FAA for validation is something that is as safe as today’s commercial airplanes. 

Why do you think that certifying to the same level of safety as commercial airplanes makes sense?

We think it’s right for Wisk, and ultimately, we think that for operating over urban environments at scale, the safety analyses of the regulators will ultimately land in a place where that becomes the expectation for everyone. And so we want to go right there and solve that problem now. But taking a step back, we totally support the FAA’s safety continuum approach. It’s not so strict as to slow innovation, but it’s not so lenient either that we introduce new risks into the system. Now, we understand that various people have different viewpoints on what the catastrophic hazard probability should be–and we think it’s totally appropriate for companies to negotiate with the FAA to find the right place on that safety continuum. For Wisk, in particular, given the fact we’re introducing the world’s first passenger-carrying autonomous aircraft, and we intend to operate over dense cities at scale, we’ve concluded that ten-to-the-minus-nine is the appropriate level of safety for our aircraft.

How challenging will it be to certify an autonomous passenger-carrying aircraft with the FAA?

We’re actually encouraged. We think it will take three pillars moving together. One is the airplane type certification; two is getting operational approval to fly; and three is finding qualified supervisors to oversee that airplane system. So we have advanced these three elements all at once, and frankly, we’re encouraged by our discussions with the FAA. We don’t actually think so much of the onus is on the FAA; it’s on us to demonstrate how we can achieve the same levels of safety that are achieved by today’s piloted systems. The way I see it, safety is both the challenge and the opportunity for autonomy. Our challenge is making an autonomous system that is as safe as what you experience in today’s piloted systems. Now, once we do that–and we believe we can–we can start to address some of the residual safety optimizations that we can further bring into the system, making aviation even safer than the dramatic levels of safety we enjoy today with the use of pilots.

What is your vision for remotely piloted operations? 

That’s a super important subject, because people often view autonomy as replacing the pilot, but that’s not what we’re doing. There is always going to be a human somewhere, it’s just the work they do that changes. So, in our case, we have the human supervisor on the ground and they oversee multiple vehicle operations. Those same technologies that enable a new market of uncrewed aircraft will enable an entirely new market of smaller aircraft that don’t exist today. But, on the other hand, those same technologies will manifest in safety enhancements to existing piloted systems. That’s super important to emphasize, because people often imagine that aviation will either be completely autonomous or piloted. And the reality is that, for the entirety of our lifetimes, we are going to live in a world where both these things co-exist. So, what we need to do is take the innovations that are happening in uncrewed systems and manifest those safety enhancements into piloted systems. That’s something that we’re really passionate about. 

What is the correct ratio of supervisors to aircraft?

The correct ratio is the one that’s safe. To put a specific number on it, we have a viewpoint on how you can operate these aircraft 1:3, and we have a viewpoint on how you can operate them up to 1:10-plus. Going between those steps requires technology, operational approval and lots more. I think we can get there. But, what excites me about autonomous systems is the scalability of them. It’s like laying the foundation of a building; once you get that foundation, the rest scales up very quickly. So, once we show that it works safely, we can scale that technology almost immediately. There’s almost no cost to transfer it to other applications, and that’s really exciting.

Ben Goldstein

Based in Boston, Ben covers advanced air mobility and is managing editor of Aviation Week Network’s AAM Report.