Sikorsky partners with spaceship & elevator companies in eVTOL urban air mobility vision

Sikorsky has discussed its vision for urban air mobility — and it’s one that sees the OEM partnering with The Spaceship Company (TSC) and Otis, an elevator manufacturer.

Sikorsky has been developing its Matrix Technology autonomy kit in SARA, an S-76 retrofitted with fly-by-wire flight controls. According to Sikorsky director of autonomous programs Igor Cherepinsky, the larger platform has been helpful in accommodating the supercomputer in the back of the aircraft:
Sikorsky has been developing its Matrix Technology autonomy kit in SARA, an S-76 retrofitted with fly-by-wire flight controls. Ted Carlson Photo
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The involvement of the two other companies was one of the few concrete details Sikorsky revealed during a presentation on the topic at Helicopter Association International (HAI) Heli-Expo 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. The presentation didn’t disclose the mechanics of the urban air mobility system Sikorsky envisions, who the customers might be, or the aircraft designs Sikorsky is considering.

Instead, Sikorsky focused on the autonomous technology it has already developed and proven in its traditional rotary-wing fleet, and its broad idea for an urban air mobility system that would provide a “seamless transportation experience” in moving customers from one office in a building to another half a city away.

The lack of detail in discussing the practicalities of such a system is far from unique among those exploring urban air mobility, with various technological, regulatory and infrastructure barriers to be crossed.

But while other helicopter OEMs have revealed the eVTOL aircraft they’re developing as technology demonstrators — with Bell’s Nexus appearing in the form of a mockup at Heli-Expo, and Airbus’s CityAirbus eVTOL due to take its first flight any day — Chris Van Buiten, VP of Sikorsky innovations, emphasized that Sikorsky’s focus was on the technology, systems and infrastructure behind the product.

“We’ve done lots of studies, we have some pretty neat, exceptional ideas, but for now, it’s not about the vehicle,” he said. “The system in which it operates — the autonomy, the suite of technologies, the interfaces with the buildings — we’re starting to define. . . . We can nail this problem, but right now, it’s not purely about the vehicle.”

Sikorsky has clearly made enormous progress in autonomous flight. For several years, it has been maturing its Matrix autonomous technology in the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA) — a customized S-76B — and an optionally piloted UH-60A Black Hawk. At Heli-Expo, it announced it was beginning the process of bringing Matrix technology into commercial operations with the launch of the S-92B and S-92A+.

And in another landmark move to prove the capability of its autonomous technology, it recently invited three non-pilot reporters to its facility in Connecticut to fly the SARA aircraft, from takeoff to landing, using just a tablet and with less than an hour’s training.

“We didn’t do that as a fun stunt,” said Van Buiten, “we did it to demonstrate that our autonomy system is ready to take on these very high integrity missions, and enable someone to board an aircraft, select a destination and be delivered there at the very highest levels of safety.”

In December, TSC — a sister company of space tourism operator Virgin Galactic — completed its second flight into space with its commercial aircraft, SpaceShipTwo. That flight created the company’s third, fourth and fifth astronauts, and came just 10 weeks after the aircraft completed its inaugural spaceflight.

“We’re really entering that tipping point with our technologies,” said Enrico Palermo, president of TSC. “We see great alignment [with Sikorsky] with our team, our capabilities and our purpose as a company. As a Virgin company, we’re purpose-led, and our purpose is to make dreams take flight. The first dream we’re tackling, clearly, is to enable many citizens — thousands over time — to fly into space. And we’re really fascinated now to apply our capabilities to making the dream of clean electric urban air mobility happen.”

The sector is one of several in which TSC is hoping to apply the capabilities it has developed in design and testing, and in composites, to build its spacecraft. “We feel like we can make, with Sikorsky, a really meaningful contribution to Urban Air Mobility,” said Palermo.

TSC began looking at the urban air mobility sector two years ago, and the company was particularly impressed with Sikorsky’s work in automation when it visited the company in Connecticut 18 months ago, he added.

“It was eye-opening for us,” said Palermo. “If you believe the vision and you believe the scale of this [urban air mobility] market, technologies such as the autonomy technology are critical to make this safe.”

According to Van Buiten, Otis, the third partner, moves two billion people each day in its elevators.

“They invented the safety elevator that fundamentally enabled the high rise buildings that we’re now talking about, that created the cities, that created the urban mobility challenge we’re confronting,” he said. “[The three companies] can take a very system-lined view of this transportation problem, transportation challenge and opportunity — and we do see this as a very significant opportunity.”

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The idea, said Van Buiten, would be for a passenger to use their phone to book the transport from their office, or from the street level near one hub, to another building in the city. “One of the first interactions you’ll have is with the elevator, and the elevator is going to begin your journey, begin your security interfaces — you can’t let [just] anyone on the roof of a high rise building,” he said.

This, and the power Otis can deliver to aircraft on the rooftop, would be key elements the company would provide, he added.

“Access to the roof and then having power on the roof is absolutely essential to recharging electric aircraft,” said Van Buiten. However, Sikorsky’s vision is not restricted to one elevator company or a specific vehicle.

“Otis is a great company to join us in creating that vision,” said Van Buiten. “They will be prepared to fully exploit that vision. It’ll be interesting to see if others are as well.”

The holistic approach to urban air mobility focuses on the entire door-to-door journey, said Palermo, with a focus on customer experience taken from sister companies in the Virgin Group. In addition to setting a high bar for safety, the partnership would explore how “we make that experience of moving in our cities fun and magical and enjoyable,” he said.

The group hasn’t shared a timeline for the development of its vision, but Van Buiten said next steps would involve collaboration with operators already working in urban transportation and with different municipalities to determine their requirements for urban air mobility operations.

In opening Sikorsky’s presentation at Heli-Expo, Nathalie Previte, vice president of commercial and international military business development for Sikorsky, said the company would be taking an evolutionary approach to urban air mobility, with operators playing a key role.

“Our vision recognizes that future urban air mobility missions will evolve from missions happening today,” she said. “Helicopter operators are the backbone of our industry, taking our products and turning them into a productive asset that ferries passengers, first responders, and critical cargo every day. These operators understand city mobility and they will continue to play a critical role in how this market expands.”

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