Forget self-driving cars and look instead to the skies, where startup Skyryse believes we’ll soon be seeing self-flying helicopters. The company has revealed its first autonomous chopper, dubbed Luna, which has successfully completed a full flight – from takeoff, flight, and landing – without a human pilot’s hands on the controls.
Those in the know when it comes to helicopters will likely spot that, beneath the colorful yellow and black wrap, Luna looks a whole lot like a Robinson R-44. That’s because it really is the four-seat helicopter, which has been in production since 1990.
Skyryse isn’t making its own choppers. Instead, its Skyryse Flight Stack is intended to integrate with the systems already in production helicopters, and already approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In the process, it can contribute various levels of assistance, up to fully taking over the pilot’s duties.
The holy grail is of course fully autonomous flight, and that’s what Skyryse demonstrated with Luna earlier in the year. However the system needn’t be so all-encompassing. The Skyryse Flight Stack could also be used for what the company describes as akin to cruise control in a car, only for a helicopter.
For example, the system could automate some of the more mundane aspects of flight, leaving the pilot responsible for the trickier parts like takeoff and landing. Or, conversely, Skyryse’s system could kick in to assist in landing in more challenging situations, like an assistant. Skyryse also uses sensors embedded in landing pads so as to help guide the helicopter in.
That’ll be important if Skyryse’s vision of autonomous helicopters acting as flying taxis is to come true. It’s not the only company looking to air travel as a way to speed up transportation within urban areas, though its retrofit approach does differ from the more typical strategy we’ve seen of developing completely custom aircraft.
Clearly, a first flight like this counts as a big success. All the same, there’s a long way to go before ordering up a self-flying chopper is as easy as summoning an Uber or Lyft from your phone. That will depend in no small part on massive overhauls to the air traffic control systems currently in place. While Skyryse is designed to work with existing management systems, if flying taxis are to achieve scale the limits of such will quickly be exposed.