Flying taxis are a step closer to becoming a reality in U.S. cities. Wisk Aero is a startup that Boeing and Kitty Hawk Corporation have backed. They signed a deal with Blade Air Mobility to operate autonomous air vehicles. The partnership between Blade and Wisk will expedite efforts to make air taxis mainstream.
Blade, based in New York City, primarily offers exclusive passenger experiences in helicopters and amphibious aircraft. The startup entered into a deal with Beta Technologies to add air taxis to its charter network. Under the terms of that deal, Blade agreed to add 20 piloted eVTOLs, or electrical vertical take-off and landing aircraft, to the network by 2025.
Wisk is a builder of autonomous eVTOLs. It plans to provide up to 30 eVTOL aircraft to Blade’s mobility routes. In 2019, Boeing and Kitty Hawk formed a joint venture to create Wisk. The startup is headquartered in Silicon Valley. Google co-founder Larry Page and Kitty Hawk Corporation’s CEO Sebastian Thrun founded the company.
“We have been focused on developing an aircraft and customer experience that is efficient, accessible, and most importantly, safe,” stated Gary Gysin, the CEO of Wisk. “The combination of our expertise as an autonomous eVTOL aircraft manufacturer and operator, with the operational expertise of Blade, will help usher in an even greater level of safety and service.”
Navigating Legal and Compliance Issues
Operating an air mobility network requires significant engagement with regulators. Blade and Wisk are forming a working group to facilitate discussions with regulators at the city, state, and federal levels.
Other companies have embroiled Wisk in several lawsuits over intellectual property rights. In April 2021, Wisk filed a federal lawsuit against Archer Aviation, accusing the rival company of “brazen theft” of its technology. Archer Aviation filed a counterclaim in which it demanded that Wisk pay it over $1 billion. In a released statement, Archer Aviation said that it intends to “hold Wisk accountable for its false and malicious extra-judicial smear campaign that has caused substantial damage to Archer.”
Making air taxis commonplace will require applying new thinking to existing transportation infrastructure. Urban noise levels and safety concerns must be considered when designing air traffic control systems that can accommodate air taxis. Since the eVTOL aircraft are emission-free, noise pollution is a bigger hurdle than environmental contamination.
Wisk’s plans to deploy eVTOL aircraft through the Blade mobility network is contingent upon getting Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification. The FAA must approve the air taxis for commercial operation.
Greg Bibbes, general counsel of Wisk, handles legal issues relating to corporate transactions, intellectual property, litigation, and real estate law. Mr. Bibbes previously served as an in-house lawyer for another autonomous systems company in Silicon Valley.
At Blade, the legal department is led by Melissa Tomkiel. As the president and general counsel of the urban air mobility network, Ms. Tomkiel oversees both the legal functions as well as many aspects of the business operations. Ms. Tomkiel joined Blade in 2015, just after it launched. She guided Blade in its launch of aviation services to the Hamptons, Westchester, Nantucket, and Miami.
Future Growth of the Wisk-Blade Partnership
Both companies are optimistic about the Wisk-Blade partnership. For Blade, the partnership is key to evolving its position from primarily operating a mobility network of traditional rotorcraft and seaplanes. Rob Wiesenthal is the CEO of Blade. He said that they “look forward to working with Wisk to help accelerate Blade’s transition from conventional rotorcraft to safe, quiet, emission-free Electric Vertical Aircraft.”
“The Wisk-Blade arrangement is a perfect fit for our asset light model,” said Will Heyburn, Chief Financial Officer and Head of Corporate Development for Blade. “Backed by Boeing’s deep aerospace experience, Wisk will own, operate and maintain their aircraft as part of our network, allowing Blade to focus on delivering a great experience to our fliers.”
Wisk’s CEO Gary Gysin echoed this optimism. “This arrangement validates that urban air mobility is the future of mobility. To date, we have been focused on developing an aircraft and customer experience that is efficient, accessible, and—most importantly—safe,” said Gysin. “The combination of our expertise as an autonomous eVTOL aircraft manufacturer and operator, with the operational expertise of Blade, will help usher in an even greater level of safety and service.”
According to estimates from Deloitte, passenger and cargo eVTOLs will make up a $4 billion market by 2025. Deloitte projects that eVTOLs will be a $57 billion market by 2035. Given the future potential and increasing competition in the space, the Wisk-Blade partnership will open the door to new opportunities for both companies.