Wisk Accuses Archer Of Stealing eVTOL Trade Secrets

Wisk points to the similarity of the next-generation vehicle in its confidential patent application to Archer’s eVTOL.
Credit: Wisk

With more than 100 companies trying to break into the nascent urban air mobility (UAM) market, it is perhaps inevitable that some of the vehicle designs look similar.

But Boeing-backed Wisk sees enough similarities between one of its designs and new entrant Archer’s aircraft that it has filed a lawsuit accusing the rival startup of stealing its trade secrets and infringing on its patents.

Founded in 2018, Archer surprised the industry when it emerged from stealth in May 2020 with plans to begin UAM services as early as 2024. In February, Archer announced it was going public through a reverse merger that would provide up to $1.1 billion to commercialize its electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) air taxi. 

Wisk, in contrast, has been developing eVTOL vehicles for more than a decade, completing the first hover flight of an unmanned demonstrator in December 2011. Originally called Zee.aero, the company is now a joint venture between Kitty Hawk, backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, and Boeing. 

Now on its fifth generation of vehicle, and having completed about 1,500 test flights, Wisk is developing its sixth generation of eVTOL for certification by the FAA. It is a potential design for this next-generation aircraft that Wisk accuses Archer of stealing.

In the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on April 6, Wisk says it is seeking “to stop a brazen theft of its intellectual property and confidential information.” The complaint cites the discovery of “suspicious downloads” by certain employees who left Wisk to work for Archer.

The lawsuit also cites the similarity between Archer’s Maker large-scale eVTOL demonstrator and the Wisk design, for which a confidential patent application was submitted in January 2020. Both designs have six tilting rotors at the wing leading edge, six fixed rotors at the trailing edge and a V-tail.

“The plaintiff raised these matters over a year ago and, after looking into them thoroughly, we have no reason to believe any proprietary Wisk technology ever made its way to Archer. We intend to defend ourselves vigorously,” Archer said in a statement. 

Wisk claims Archer’s February unveiling “was surprising for at least a couple of reasons.” One is that, only a year earlier, Archer appeared to have “little or no meaningful operations.” Another is that Archer’s “timeline to release an aircraft was a fraction of the time taken by its serious competitors.”

Archer plans to fly the Maker large-scale demonstrator this year. Joby Aviation, founded in 2009, also plans to begin commercial UAM service in 2024, but has been flying a full-scale eVTOL prototype since 2019. Other UAM leaders, such as EHang and Volocopter, have flown multiple generations of vehicle.

According to the lawsuit, Archer hired 10 engineers away from Wisk in January 2020. “Concerned about this targeted recruiting, Wisk hired a third party to conduct a forensic investigation. What it discovered was unsettling,” the complaint says. 

“One of those engineers surreptitiously downloaded thousands of files near midnight, shortly before he announced his resignation and immediately departed to Archer,” the lawsuit alleges. “Another engineer downloaded numerous files containing test data,” the complaint claims.

”These files contain voluminous confidential presentations reporting on the development, simulation, and testing of Wisk aircraft with different wing and rotor configurations, including aircraft having the fixed-wing, 12-rotor configuration that Archer copied from Wisk,” a Wisk spokesperson said. 

“The files include highly technical confidential documents focused on research, design, development, testing, and fabrication of specific systems, which compile years of effort by engineers to develop Wisk’s proprietary technology, such as the battery and power distribution systems and electrically driven propulsion system,” he told Aerospace DAILY.  

“Moreover, the technical details disclosed by Archer reflect an architecture that is not only designed to incorporate multiple Wisk trade secrets, but also infringes [on] numerous inventions patented by Wisk, including innovations related to aircraft design for enhanced stability and control, thermal management of rotor control assemblies, and battery architecture for fast charging,” the spokesperson added.

“It’s regrettable that Wisk would engage in litigation in an attempt to deflect from the business issues that have caused several of its employees to depart,” Archer said.

“Archer has placed an employee on paid administrative leave in connection with a government investigation and a search warrant issued to the employee, which we believe are focused on conduct prior to the employee joining the company,” the startup continued. 

“Archer and three other Archer employees with whom the individual worked also have received subpoenas relating to this investigation, and all are fully cooperating with the authorities.”

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.


1 Comment
If Wisk's allegations of IP theft are proven in court, it would go a long way to explain how Archer could emerge from nowhere to sell $1 billion of air machines to United Airlines.

If the allegations are proven to be true and Archer has to return IP, design and test data to Wisk, there isn't much left in Archer. Certainly not the $1.1 billion that it was valued at a few weeks ago.