AAM Spotlight: Jia Xu, SkyGrid CEO

Jia Xu

Credit: SkyGrid

SkyGrid is a joint venture between Boeing and artificial intelligence (AI) company SparkCognition that is developing high-assurance autonomy solutions for drones and advanced air mobility (AAM) aircraft, including electric-vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles.

New CEO Jia Xu, formerly chief technology officer of Honeywell’s Urban Air Mobility (UAM) division, recently sat down with the AAM Report to discuss the startup’s pivot from focusing exclusively on enabling small drones to building out hardware and software solutions to help integrate the new generation of electric air taxis into the national airspace system. An abridged transcript follows:

AAM Report: How would you describe the mission of SkyGrid?

Xu: SkyGrid exists to open the sky for autonomous flight. We are building safety-critical third-party services to support all the new autonomous aviation companies. That includes the sensors, the data and the feeds coming into the ground systems to support autonomous aircraft. Our systems are designed for things like autonomous cargo aircraft,  air taxis like the Wisk vehicle, or even smaller uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) delivering cargo and parcels, particularly those flying over populated areas.

For these aircraft to be able to operate in the national airspace, we’ll need to support them with high-integrity data sensors and fusion products. So, that’s what we do; we don’t build airplanes, but we build the infrastructure and software services to support the routine operation of autonomous aircraft.

How has SkyGrid’s focus shifted from mainly small drones to larger aircraft and UAM?

SkyGrid was originally started some years back with a focus on the small UAS  market and unlocking command-and-control and airspace management for small drones that are commercial or recreational in nature. We have really strong Android and iOS apps that enable you to fly your own drone, and over time we learned a great deal about how to build and deploy these apps.

But one of the other things we learned along the way is that the real economic and public value is in mission-critical, high-stakes operations. You can deliver more value for customers–and command greater pricing–if you’re doing mission-critical deliveries of high-value cargo, and the highest value cargo is, of course, humans. And what we realized from our experience on the small UAS side is that we have to produce high-assurance systems and third-party support for aircraft flying high-stakes missions.

So, in our view, we have pivoted and changed our perspective over the last year. Yes, we can build apps for small UAS and [urban air traffic management] services, but the real value is in industrial aircraft support and airspace management systems of the future, where you have high-value operations backed up by high-assurance systems. That’s the future focus of SkyGrid: Not just to address small UAS, but all segments of aviation.

How exactly do SkyGrid’s systems work?

At this point, I’m not at liberty to go into all of the details. But suffice it to say, some of those standards and mechanisms already exist in terms of how we integrate UAS functions into the national airspace. It’s been demonstrated with technologies like sense-and-avoid systems, high-integrity data, etc., but they haven’t been commercialized to the scale that’s needed and made accessible to these upcoming companies.

On the back end, the differentiation is that we’re doing the hard work to build the high-assurance systems using aviation-grade best practices. On the front end to the user, the system manifests as almost a multifunctional display that you would have on an aircraft—but on the ground. This platform interface provides the pilot-in-command on the ground with everything they need for the strategic-level command and control of the aircraft.

In the case of aviation and autonomy, what I’ve noticed over time is that the plumbing is really the hard part; getting all that data fused together; making sure they arrive on time in a real-time system; making sure you’re cybersecure and your data isn’t corrupted–that’s the hard part. Once you have all that in one place, you can augment pilot decision-making, or in the case of autonomous systems, you can also not only augment the data processing, but you can augment autonomy as well, making decisions on the ground to support in-the-air autonomy.

How do you see the company developing in the coming years?

On the business side, I think the most critical thing for us is really to be able to build a product that can address the needs of multiple segments. It’s clear we can do that for the UAM/AAM market, but how you tailor the product for a small UAS will look different than an air taxi. Despite the size difference, both have safety-critical elements, especially as drones continue to grow in size and their mission criticality increases in coming years. So the challenge is to address all those segments with a common baseline.

I also see a technology stack evolving across UAM. Just as we see companies building eVTOLs, there will be companies building the autonomy on board, and companies like SkyGrid enabling them with infrastructure and services, streamlining the integration process and ensuring it's as seamless as possible — in a plug-and-play model.

Our goal is to prevent the unnecessary duplication of efforts. By offering these essential services, we empower our partners to concentrate on their core strengths. This holistic approach ensures we don't end up with certified aircraft that lack the systems or infrastructure for large-scale, practical deployment.

Ben Goldstein

Based in Washington, Ben covers Congress, regulatory agencies, the Departments of Justice and Transportation and lobby groups.