This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
Wisk hopes to resume flight testing of its Cora eVTOL aircraft before the end of May, subject to the further lifting of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in New Zealand, where much of the program’s development work is being conducted. Since April 28, when New Zealand moved from level four to level three of its lockdown, Wisk technicians have been able to work in the company’s hangar preparing its prototypes to fly. Tests will be able to restart when level two is achieved, possibly by the end of next week.
“New Zealand has done a good job [responding to the Covid-19 pandemic], having been very restrictive early on,” explained Gary Gysin, CEO of California-based Wisk. “We will probably be able to resume flight testing earlier than we would have been able to do in the U.S. and this gives us an advantage.”
The Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand recently held talks with the FAA to agree on plans for American officials to be able to observe type certification work on the Cora and share data. Gysin told AIN he hopes this will help to establish the safety track record of the fully-autonomous, all-electric aircraft, saving some time for the program and also “generating trust and confidence.”
Wisk's latest prototype aircraft is the fourth iteration of the two-seat model and the company said it has been making refinements as it gets closer to defining the production version. According to Gysin, the multi-rotor propulsion system architecture is essentially finalized, although it remains open to possible improved battery technology. The company, which has yet to release full specifications, intends to the weight of the Cora to allow more payload and will also add more detect and avoid sensors.
To date, the four prototypes have made just over 1,200 flights. The engineering team is now focusing on issues such as how to incorporate lightning strike protection.
Gysin said that during disruption to Cora’s flight test program, the company has redeployed employees to focus on documentation work that he hopes will save time in the latter stage of the certification process. “In a strange way, it [the disruption] has helped because when you are busy developing and innovating you don’t stay on top of the documentation,” he said.
In early February, the New Zealand government and Wisk signed a memorandum of understanding covering plans to conduct autonomous passenger-carrying flight trials in the Canterbury region. The agreement is part of the government's industry-wide Airspace Integration Trials.
The two sides have yet to confirm dates for this stage of the project to establish urban air mobility services, with development work being handled by the local Wisk New Zealand (formerly Zephyr Airworks) subsidiary. Flag carrier Air New Zealand is also a partner in the project.
During the course of 2019 eVTOL start-up Kitty Hawk and Boeing advanced a partnership agreement to establish Wisk as a new joint venture. No ownership details or investment amounts have been reported, but Boeing is understood to be the majority shareholder.
Gysin told AIN that the company was “fortunate” to have raised financing and forged a partnership before Covid-19 raised questions about further investment in the eVTOL programs. He said that, in his opinion, strategic investors like Boeing are more likely to remain committed to the emerging sector than venture capital or private equity investors. Despite Boeing’s well-documented business challenges, he maintained that this remains a strategic priority for the U.S. aerospace group.
On April 29, Wisk appointed Dan Dalton as v-p of global partnerships. He will focus on the regulatory process but also forging alliances with companies that might provide support with requirements such as sensors, airspace integration, and ground infrastructure. Dalton was formerly executive v-p of strategic partnerships with artificial intelligence and robotics specialist Airspace Systems. He has also worked with unmanned aircraft group General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and the U.S. Department of Energy, and has served as a visiting scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
This story comes from the new FutureFlight.aero resource developed by AIN to provide objective, independent coverage, and analysis of new aviation technology, including electric aircraft developments.