Preparing for liftoff: Volocopter and Wisk chart the path to the skies for eVTOLs

Dirk Hoke and Brian Yutko, CEOs of Volocopter and Wisk, respectively, join Allie Medack and the Drivers of Disruption podcast to discuss their vision for future air mobility (FAM) and the associated challenges in making it happen. They are joined by Robin Riedel, a partner in McKinsey & Company’s San Francisco office and a co-leader of McKinsey Center for Future Mobility, who focuses on aviation industry innovation, including advanced air mobility.

The burgeoning FAM industry offers a new set of aerospace use cases across passenger and cargo transportation, surveillance, operations, and military. These use cases will be enabled by a variety of new aircraft including novel passenger mobility (like an eVTOL), cargo drones, supersonic, hypersonic, and other aircraft using sustainable propulsion systems. FAM solutions are expected to usher in quiet, fast, safe, accessible, low- or zero-emission, and cost-effective air mobility as early as 2024. Approximately $45 billion worth of orders were placed for FAM aircraft in 2022, a number expected to rise in the coming years.

Volocopter and Wisk are two players within the field that is pioneering FAM development, which includes advanced electric drones, multicopters, and fixed wing aircraft, that are expected to be commercially available by 2024. In this episode, Hoke and Yutko share their visions, discuss opportunities, and explore how FAM disruptors and incumbents can learn from each other. They also cover commercialization strategies, the benefits of partnering, and the technical, regulatory, and perception hurdles they face as they introduce their innovative aircraft to the public. Riedel describes how the industry will evolve and outlines the four major unlocks necessary for FAM to truly take flight. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Podcast transcript

Allie Medack: Welcome to Drivers of Disruption, a podcast covering the latest advancements in the future of mobility, current challenges, and potential solutions moving us forward. I’m your host, Allie Medack, and in today’s episode, we’re going to take things to the air and talk about advanced air mobility. Our guests today are Dirk Hoke, CEO of Volocopter, and Brian Yutko, CEO of Wisk. Dirk is a technology expert in the aviation industry who formerly held leading positions at Siemens and Airbus Defense and Space. Volocopter was founded in 2011 and is headquartered in Bruchsal, Germany, with offices around the world, including in Paris, Singapore, and Munich. Brian brings years of leadership and engineering experience in aerospace and aviation with a particular focus on electric and autonomous aviation. Prior to joining Wisk, he served as vice president and chief engineer for sustainability and future mobility at Boeing. Dirk and Brian, thank you. You guys are joining us from opposite ends of the world, and we appreciate having you here today.

Our third guest today is Robin Riedel, a partner at McKinsey who co-leads the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility and is a global leader of the disruptive aerospace sector within McKinsey’s Aerospace & Defense Practice. His work focuses on innovative topics in the aviation industry, including advanced air mobility, unmanned aerial systems, and super- or hypersonic flight. Before joining McKinsey, Robin held department leadership roles in both the commercial and operations branches of a major airline. Robin, welcome.

While it’s still early, while we’re still not in commercial service, it feels like we’re ready for takeoff as an industry.

Robin Riedel

Robin Riedel: Thanks for having me. Exciting topic.

Allie Medack: Absolutely. Robin, the first two episodes of Drivers of Disruption focused on ground transportation. Today we’re excited to bring things into the air. I’m wondering if you could compare and contrast for me the advantages and disadvantages as we look at the future of air versus the future of ground transportation mobility.

Robin Riedel: It’s a fascinating question because I think a lot of people compare the air and the ground frequently but they’re so different. Let’s start with the differences and then talk about the similarities. On the differences side, the fundamental difference is obviously gravity. In aviation, we’re always fighting gravity because we need to stay in the air. That makes the engineering task quite difficult because you’re very much optimizing for weight much more than you do in ground vehicles. So, the question of battery density, the question of lightweight motors and materials, are much more central to the design of these vehicles.

Secondly, there is a slightly different risk challenge. In automotive, we have certain expectations of how safe it should be on the ground, and different expectations of how safe the air should be. That requires a different approach to certification, a different approach to ensuring that safety. Those two industries have developed differently over the years, so they have different approaches. Working with regulators on the automotive side is very different than working with regulators and getting certification on the aviation side.

Third is that the environment you’re operating in is very different, particularly for autonomy. I’m a pilot and I’m a driver, so I can do the comparison. It’s a lot easier to stay in the air than to drive on the ground. On the ground, you might have a ball flying in front of you, a dog run onto the street, a shopping cart coming out of nowhere. You have to always be ready to react. You don’t have that problem necessarily in the sky because the airspace is a little bit wider. You don’t get anywhere close to other things, generally speaking, so you have a bit more time to react.

But there are other challenges that come with that operating environment. For example, wind or weather affect very differently in the air than on the ground. As you compare these two, you're solving very different problems in the air than you do on the ground.

There are similarities when it comes to: How do you build a company that will build a whole new process? How do you think about integrating existing infrastructure, existing models? How do you think about talent? Automotive and aerospace are competing for the same talent on many of these things, whether it’s for power electronics or software. There’s a lot of overlap and a lot of lessons that can be learned by disruptive aerospace from what we would say is disruptive automotive—when it comes to autonomy, for example.

Allie Medack: To set the scene for today, we’re on the heels of the Paris Air Show. There were a lot of announcements. Brian and Dirk, you each had some announcements there as well. Robin, can you just give us an overview of the future air mobility ecosystem and what we can expect, particularly in the advanced air mobility space?

Robin Riedel: Paris was one of those events where future mobility really showed up. I think those of us who’ve been in the industry have been seeing over the last decade or so a number of new technologies coming up, from drones to eVTOL passenger aircraft to sustainable aviation and new propulsion systems. I think we’re now at a moment in time where all of these things are getting ready for commercialization. The technology is in place, the investment is in place. We’re getting to a point where customers are asking for it. Paris was interesting in the sense that for the first time at a major air show, we had a significant presence by air mobility players. Volocopter was doing daily demo flights, flying its aircraft around the air show. Wisk had its next-generation aircraft set up in a chalet for people to see what it will be like to be in one of those. And many of the other players in the industry had either vehicles there or parts of vehicles there. There was a whole hall full of eVTOL aircraft. It felt like this part of the industry had finally come out of the fringes into being a main part of the aerospace industry.

While it’s still early, while we’re still not in commercial service, it feels like we’re ready for takeoff as an industry. Let’s ask Dirk and Brian about this. As you think about the future and where we are in the cycle, what is air mobility really going to bring to us? What does it look like when you guys are ready to hit the commercial service and passengers are flying?

Dirk Hoke: I think we’re entering amazing times. We’re very excited to get started with commercial operations next summer in Paris. Most people think this will happen in the 2030s. When we tell them we will fly next year, they think maybe some demo flights. Of course, it will be a step-by-step approach. We see it in a few cities in the next year, then year by year going into more cities, into more regional areas. In the 2030s, we then go from piloted aircraft toward automated and autonomous flying aircraft. I think in the 2030s we will be used to having another option of mobility in our daily end-to-end mobility concepts. It will be totally normal, like using a taxi, to use one of the eVTOLs in either a city or regional environment. We are very proud and excited to be part of that story.

Ultimately what people will start to experience is an entirely new form of travel that has incredibly high levels of safety, is quiet, and has zero source emissions.

Brian Yutko

Robin Riedel: Brian, do you agree? Or what would you add, especially about what it will feel like for customers to experience that?

Brian Yutko: I think what this industry is really building is the ability for companies like ours to bring flight closer to where people live. And that can be in urban environments, in regional environments, in lots of different markets. Ultimately what people will start to experience is an entirely new form of travel that has incredibly high levels of safety, is quiet, and has zero source emissions. That’s a really compelling value proposition, if we can execute on it. That’s one of those big societally transformative ideas that gets all our companies and all the people that work in our companies very excited to go execute on that mission. What we’re focused on at Wisk is bringing the first autonomous commercial passenger-carrying aircraft to market. We’re marching right now on a plan that has us doing that this decade in a certification program with the FAA and with some partners around the globe.

Allie Medack: For those of you joining us on the video version, you will note Robin’s very interesting background of model planes and plane paraphernalia. Robin, you’re clearly a fan of the space. I’m curious, if you look into your crystal ball, how do you think the advanced air mobility industry is going to change in the coming years? How might that background, the models you have, look different in a few years? And what do you expect to see happen?

Robin Riedel: In my background, you see mostly traditional aerospace because that’s what I’ve worked on for the last 20+ years, and they are the airplanes I fly today. I do think this will change quite a bit, maybe with Volocopter the next year then some of the other players the year after. But by the middle of this decade, we’ll probably have a number of eVTOL players, certified vehicles that are going to start scaling up operations. I think operations will scale somewhat slowly because we’re still experimenting. What are the business models that work? What are the real routes where you have benefits for customers?

By the early 2030s I expect this to be a real industry where in many of the cities and in some of the rural areas of the world, you can jump on a new type of aircraft that looks completely different, that is smaller, maybe autonomous, probably electric, maybe hydrogen in some cases, to take you on regional and urban trips and provide a whole different way of mobility. Is it going to scale to the same scale as ground transportation? Probably not in that time frame, but it will be something many of us will have access to and will fly on once in a while.

So my background will have a whole bunch of new weird and fun-looking airplane configurations back there as we’re building this new industry and as it becomes part of everyday life.

Allie Medack: Hearing all this talk about where the industry is headed and how quickly players like Wisk and Volocopter are moving the air industry into this advanced space feels very similar to what Tesla did to the automotive industry with electrification. Dirk, starting with you, what do you think makes Volocopter unique? I know you and Brian have different approaches to commercialization. I’m curious what you see as your path.

Dirk Hoke: I think we have very complementary approaches, and we complement each other very nicely. What we decided is to start to go into operation with a pilot. Of course, that’s a challenging situation. If you have at the beginning a two seater, that means at the end you have only one passenger. We mostly did that due to the fact that the battery development was not accelerating as expected and we had to do some compromises. So while we are also developing bigger aircraft, we will go into the certification for that type of certificate with a two seater.

We currently added the auditing with EASA, and we will start in a few days flying the first manned version of the aircraft that we will fly in Paris. The teams are working very hard to deal with the daily challenges making sure that we comply, on one hand, with all the necessary documentation proving that we know how to design and build an aircraft, but on the other hand, also building the aircraft that is conforming so we can finish all the flight envelopes that are necessary. Just to give you an idea, we need to do more than 150 flight hours with the aircraft and out of those, 75 have to be on one aircraft. We cannot just build ten and distribute. This means that to get there you have to multiply by three or four the number of flights necessary in order to get to these flight hours.

Allie Medack: I like that you guys keep teasing out the fact that there’s a lot of symbiosis here, and a rising tide lifts all boats within the industry. Dirk, you just talked through Volocopter’s approach to commercialization. Brian, I would love to ask you the same question. Can you talk a little bit about what makes Wisk unique and how you see your path to commercialization?

Brian Yutko: In this industry, there’s been some amount of recognition that we’d all like to get to a four-seat autonomous aircraft that has significant cargo-carrying capability for passengers plus their bags, and, ideally, uncrewed so that all the seats are revenue seats but also so the aircraft can be moved around in what will be generally pretty dynamic networks. We’ve decided to go directly to that end point. That is a riskier approach than developing a piloted aircraft.

We’re on our sixth generation of aircraft. We’ve flown five prior generations. The sixth, which we’re building now and which we had in Paris, will be the four-seat aircraft that we are in a type-certification program with right now with the FAA. Our path to commercialization runs through type-certifying the airplane, operational approvals for an uncrewed aircraft, which is the unique aspect we will have to contend with, then ultimately getting into launch cities and all the rest, similar to what some others in the industry are doing. We’re working on a timeline that has us entering into service this decade, and we’re excited to be pioneering in the autonomous space.

I think this is a fun time in the industry because, ultimately, assuming we all have the incredible privilege of being successful in our aircraft programs, and certifying our programs, we will have the ability to compete over markets. But now I get a lot of questions about “How do you feel about your competitors?” And I say, we’re not competing yet. We hope to have the privilege someday to compete.

Right now, it feels a bit more like weightlifting—competing with ourselves to lift the weight. This industry is full of engineers right now, full of builders, people who are trying to do what I think, even a few years ago, folks thought was impossible. That is one of the fun dynamics about this industry.

Dirk Hoke: I don’t see us as competitors at all. Also, the future market is more than big enough. I think we all have slightly different use cases. I hope also that we learn from automotive, that we don’t repeat the mistakes they made at the beginning where it took them a long time for the standardization of charging stations. Hopefully we can use the time we still have to come to standardization and agree on the way forward so we don’t repeat the things that were not done perfectly in the automotive space.

Our path to commercialization runs through type-certifying the airplane, operational approvals for an uncrewed aircraft, which is the unique aspect we will have to contend with, then ultimately getting into launch cities and all the rest, similar to what some others in the industry are doing.

Brian Yutko

Robin Riedel: I’ve been lucky enough to see both of your vehicles, and a couple of others in the industry, fly already. And it’s a truly amazing sight. But you guys have done hundreds, if not thousands, of test flights by now. So, tell us what you have learned. What are the big takeaways? How do they help you shape the experience for the customer and the technology? Brian, you guys have been flying in New Zealand and North America. What have you learned?

Brian Yutko: The team here, and a lot of credit goes to many people who came before I even joined the team, has been flying since around 2010 or so and has achieved many of the “the firsts” in this industry: first electric VTOL, hover and flight in transition, and piloted transition, and all the rest. What you see, if you look throughout the generations of aircraft, is an evolution toward what we think is a very compelling configuration. You can do a lot of interesting things with electric flight. Ultimately, we settled on a configuration that has 12 rotors, a high wing, a tilting front row of rotors, and a spacious four-passenger compartment. That sounds very simple to land on a configuration, but the configuration determines many of the underlying technical challenges that need to be solved.

If you look at our Gen 5 aircraft flying today, without getting too technical, it has fixed-pitch rotors—rotors that don’t change pitch as they’re rotating—and it has a separate cruise propeller on the back of the aircraft, making that configuration work during transition. Transition refers to the phase of flight between when you’re flying like a helicopter and when you’re flying on the wing like an airplane. Making that control system work automatically is very challenging because there are vibrations that need to be contended with as part of the system. Much of what the early work has done is making that a very robust system to be able to do those kind of flight tests routinely through transition.

But, the simple answer to your question, Robin, is that there are many, many thousands of lessons learned, all of which then find their way into the thinking around the product and ultimately how to certify it and the underlying systems very robustly.

Robin Riedel: Thanks for that, Brian. Dirk, what are the big findings you’ve had flying around? You’ve flown all over the world. I’ve followed some of your news releases.

Dirk Hoke: It started with the very famous flight of one of our founders on a yoga ball in 2011. This went viral and encouraged them to continue. Then they had the first flight of a real vehicle within a factory hall, then developing some different prototypes of today’s VoloCity model. Of course, it was all about optimizing the different components. We had three intentions: maximum safety, the lowest noise possible, then, of course, no emission. Regarding the lowest noise possible, it was to look at how we can have a combination of the amount of rotors and motors, the size of the rotors, and also about the tip speed. This has been a focus throughout the different development phases, ensuring we can fly into cities in the future so we don’t add to the stress level of people living in cities.

Looking at the flight controls, it was all about ensuring we reached the maximum safety level, not only on calculation theory by achieving ten to minus nine—the same safety level as a commercial aircraft, which means one critical mistake in one billion operation hours—but also to demonstrate that we have looked at all different safety aspects. We have seen how the vehicle behaves with strong winds. What does it mean flying closer to objects? Because these are exactly the discussions we have currently with the authorities; they want to be sure that nothing unforeseen can happen when we start operation.

It’s a long way from a first flight—that first manned flight was 2011—then through different versions. For us to public-test flight was more about testing public awareness and public reaction. What we have seen on many occasions is that people have been rather resistant to adapt to new technologies. Once they have seen and heard our vehicle, they were converted and became ambassadors for the new technologies. The main aspect is to get public acceptance. This is also why we promoted the emergency medical service, because we can save lives by applying these technologies, by having a low-noise no-emission vehicle, bringing doctors in a shorter time to an accident, and in the second version flying the patient to a hospital, which will save lives. Besides the use case, it’s a lot of work to not only overcome the certification hurdle, but to get public acceptance, which is needed to scale the system.

Robin Riedel: Brian, I’m curious from an uncrewed autonomous perspective, how is the public reacting to that approach? I think there’s always one step further to, say, getting on an airplane that looks completely new or getting on an airplane that looks completely new and also doesn’t have a pilot. Any reflections on that or early learnings from you?

Brian Yutko: I have a strong opinion about this. Typically people will say, “We did a survey, and what we learned is x percent of people will or won’t go on an autonomous thing.” I simply do not believe those surveys, either for aviation or for ground vehicles or for any other things, because I think it’s so hard to accurately assess something that people have never experienced.

As an example, maybe a few months ago, I took my first cruise autonomous car without a driver in it. And it was incredible. If you had surveyed me ahead of time, I don’t think I would have had any idea how to say: "What is this going to be like?" Because I had never experienced it before.

One of the things we do know for certain is that this system must be safe and must have a very high value proposition. If it’s safe and has a very high value proposition, then history tells us it will be adopted. The simplest example I can give you is to imagine if you surveyed people about hitchhiking to work in the mid-2000s. You would probably get a 1 percent acceptance rate. Yet I can almost guarantee that you, Robin, have taken an Uber to our office once or a rideshare of some type. Would most call that hitchhiking? No, but certainly you’re using a new technology device to get into the back of a stranger’s car. Why do we do that? Because it’s been proven statistically at scale to be safe, and it’s been proven to have a high value proposition. So, people will tend to adopt it.

That doesn’t mean we can be blind to what it takes to have customers engage with an autonomous aircraft. In fact, there is a tremendous amount of innovation in thinking about how people will interact with an uncrewed aviation system for the first time. We have a design studio here where I’m sitting in Mountain View, California, where we’ve now brought hundreds of people who are just general customers in this industry, to understand how to very precisely design the system so that people feel safe in it.

Right now, it feels a bit more like weightlifting—competing with ourselves to lift the weight. This industry is full of engineers right now, full of builders, people who are trying to do what I think, even a few years ago, folks thought was impossible.

Brian Yutko

Allie Medack: Robin, we’ve talked a lot about the challenges so far, and I know you’ve studied this industry quite a bit. What are the unlocks it’s going to take to actually get us to commercialization?

Robin Riedel: It’s a great question, Allie. There are basically four things I think we need to figure out for this industry to truly take off. We need to figure out public acceptance and getting the public really engaged in this. We need to figure out certification across both aircraft at ground and air space and operator. We need to figure out the economics. How do we make the economics of this work? And lastly, we need to figure out infrastructure.

Let me give you a little more detail on each. On public acceptance, if we don’t have the public on our side, it will be very tricky to get these things into the air. We’ll have people not wanting them in their backyard, not wanting the infrastructure, not wanting to fly in them. So, the sooner we can get the public on board, explain to them what this is and how it benefits them, the better.

Secondly, on certification, the certifying agencies have made real progress in the last couple of years on defining how we think about certifying these vehicles. But technology is moving fast. There’s lots of innovation. Regulation will need to keep up with that. We need to make sure this is absolutely safe, so we can’t cut any corners. There’s going to be this tension about can we get regulation that enables this to be a useful mode of transportation while keeping us fully safe? There is a path forward. But in some of the details there are still open questions. The regulatory agencies, the IASA and FAA, are actively working on that.

On the economics, the interesting question is: Can we make this work at a price point where but many people can have access to this? That requires us to have built lots of aircraft so we can have economies of scale. It means we probably need things like autonomy. It probably means we need high utilization of the aircraft, to fly them a lot during the day so we can share the cost of the aircraft. That requires new business models and is a big unlock we need to figure out.

Lastly is infrastructure. This is only a useful mode of transportation if it actually gets me to where I want to go. So, we need lots of landing sites in places where people want to go and want to depart from. Building infrastructure on the ground is a pretty big deal. It takes money, it takes public acceptance and engagement, it takes land, it takes regulation, involvement by communities. That is another big unlock. We need to build that infrastructure.

So those are four things you could argue stand in the way of this taking off. But they are also things lots of people are working on. So, I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll get there.

Besides the use case, it’s a lot of work to not only overcome the certification hurdle, but to get public acceptance, which is needed to scale the system.

Dirk Hoke

Allie Medack: We talk a lot about the regulatory challenges, challenges around public acceptance. But there’s also a lot of opportunity here. What are some of those opportunities that don’t get talked about enough when it comes to the future of this technology?

Dirk Hoke: One is the emergency medical service, just enabling instant application. We always talk about the big cabs flying from the airport downtown; that’s a very obvious business case.

But we also have to talk about connecting the unconnected. We have a lot of areas, be it in Europe, be it in the US, where people have no direct link to a mass transportation system. We also see that certain areas develop slower because there’s no real transportation hub. We have already had discussions with real estate developers, who say if you can certify the vertiport, we are willing to develop residential and commercial areas around it because we know it will be connected. This will not be replacing a mass transportation system, but it starts to be attractive for a lot of people to have the opportunity of using another new modality—for example, to fly from a not-so-connected area to an airport.

I was in Boca Raton where we have a general aviation terminal, and it took us two hours to get to the airport for a one hour and 20-minute flight. That makes no sense. I think we need to also understand that we have already reached in 2007 more than 50% of the population moving into urban areas. And this is accelerating; it’s 70% right now. It will increase the problems because these cities have not been built for this or developed at the beginning so that they can cope with the amount of people. You cannot just add another rail system or underground traffic. This is something that needs 20 years, billions of euros of investment. In some areas it’s not even possible. So we need to look at what other options we can add to give people more options deciding where they want to work and where they want to live.

Brian Yutko: If you think about the underlying technologies enabling this and what they might enable in the future, I think it goes in two directions. One is that we may see more small aircraft that are maybe bigger than the ones Dirk and I are building right now, but a growth of an industry in the small aircraft market. You might start to see the increase of air travel options in this smaller plane market in a way that doesn’t exist today, and that’s exciting because it’s being built from a zero-emissions standpoint and all the rest.

What’s also cool, in my opinion, is that these technologies may find themselves in large airplanes, too. If you think about autonomy, it’s a scale-agnostic kind of a technology. You may think that these are sensors and computers and software, and it’s not so easy to say I’m going to take that from my four-seat airplane and put it in my 400-seat airplane. But there are actually similarities. I think one of the interesting but unappreciated things we can accomplish here as an industry is pioneering some kind of means and methods in the small airplane space for enabling uncrewed operations and so on, that turn into safety enhancements in the large airplane space. That doesn’t mean taking large airplanes and making them uncrewed, but it means the innovations we come up with for human factors, for how someone looks at a screen, supervises an aircraft, can help how we design flight decks in the future so that piloted aircraft are even safer.

What’s also cool, in my opinion, is that these technologies may find themselves in large airplanes, too. If you think about autonomy, it’s a scale-agnostic kind of a technology.

Brian Yutko

Robin Riedel: That’s a fascinating perspective on what this might look like. Let me shift to a slightly different topic, which is you’re building a brand-new industry and brand-new companies. There’s a big question about what do you do internally versus what you partner on. We’ve seen different players in the industry take different positions on the level of vertical integration, from the extreme where some are building everything in-house—building the motors, building the vehicle, operating, being a ride-sharing platform—and others being very much focused on “No, we’re just going to integrate an airframe, but we’re not going to operate them or build components.” Where on that spectrum do you guys fall, and what’s the rationale behind where you’ve landed?

Dirk Hoke: I wasn’t involved in the current vehicle at the beginning when these decisions were taken. But I can tell you that as we start developing the next-generation vehicle, we have a very thorough thinking process on the make-or-buy and the core-noncore.

I strongly believe that the success of the next-generation vehicle clearly depends on the quality of the electric drivetrain and the battery system—two critical components where we will not rely completely on sub-suppliers. We will always be involved to a certain degree in order to have our own IP and our own knowledge on these topics.

For many other topics, we would like to see more competition. We don’t want to be dependent on one single source. I think the collaboration for us is very important. We also believe that we will have a function like Boeing and Airbus had for the whole commercial aircraft ecosystem. I think Wisk and us and others will play a vital role in building this ecosystem for UAM, RAM, AAM, whatever you want to name it. Electric vehicles will be very attractive for the supply chain because there’s a different quantity of our vehicles than you have in aerospace. In aerospace you talk about hundreds, in automotive you talk about millions, and we will be somewhere in between, which, in my opinion, is very attractive for aerospace suppliers.

Robin Riedel: Brian, where are you guys headed from a vertical integration point? Obviously, you have the power of Boeing behind you as your only shareholder by now. But what’s the thinking there? How much do you rely on industry versus inventing it in-house?

Brian Yutko: We’re an extremely vertical team. We build almost everything on our existing airplanes today. It doesn’t mean we’ll always stay that way. But pioneering the first commercial autonomous aircraft at the levels of safety we’re talking about requires a deep understanding of all of the underlying subsystems and how they affect one another. Many of the systems we’re talking about cannot be easily purchased off the shelf at the levels of integrity that ultimately are required.

We have started working with some partners. Up to generation five, the aircraft was very substantially built in-house. For generation six, we will still be extremely vertical when you compare with the traditional aviation industry. But we have started working with partners on some key subsystems where we think that’s most appropriate. If you compare the balance between the existing successful commercial aviation industry and what we’re doing here, we’re much closer to the vertical side of the house.

I strongly believe that the success of the next-generation vehicle clearly depends on the quality of the electric drive train and the battery system—two critical components where we will not rely completely on sub-suppliers.

Dirk Hoke

Robin Riedel: Both of you have worked in major aerospace incumbent organizations in the past. Brian, you at Boeing, and Dirk, you at Airbus. Now you’re running a start-up in aerospace while trying to disrupt some of what the other players have built over 80, 100 years or so. How do you feel work is different for you as you’re now working at a smaller, more agile player, trying to bring around the disruption? And how do you engage with some of the incumbent organizations you used to be part of to bring them along in this? What are some of your learnings and observations?

Dirk Hoke: First of all, I have a lot of friends at Airbus, and I continue to admire what the company’s doing. I learned a lot during my time there, which now I can apply, and I do. Do I see us as a disruptor for Airbus and Boeing? No, but maybe as an accelerator for change of minds in certain topics, and this hopefully helps us all to accelerate decarbonization.

We have a very diverse team, almost 60 nations. We have a lot of people from Airbus, Boeing, Embraer, you name it. Because where do people learn their knowledge about aircraft, be it fixed wing or rotating equipment? You learn it at the best. And these have been dominating our aerospace community for the last hundred years. There’s a reason they’re so successful. We believe in that competence, and we build on that.

What is different? Good and bad. Sometimes I would like to have my teams of aerospace engineers in certain topics, but sometimes also I’m excited to see the motivation, dedication, and the purpose-driven team we have and how passionately they work to get things done. This is not always as structured as it would have been at Airbus, but definitely with a huge drive of energy and with a lot of commitment to solve the problem. We find new challenges every day. But the team always gets up being more encouraged to solve it and has an incredible amount of dedication and energy. What I like the most is the passion you see, the glimmers in the eyes when they talk about our product and about how we will go into operation next year.

Robin Riedel: Wisk is owned by Boeing. Are you getting the best of both worlds, Brian? Tell us a bit about how that works for you.

Brian Yutko: What a great lead-in. That’s exactly how we think about this. We think about the relationship with Boeing as being a real differentiator for us in the industry. If you look at a company like Boeing, it is so deep, has so much expertise, and has this global footprint, that it is hard from the outside to even comprehend how amazing this company and this machine is. When you look at all of the markets that are served and the technology that is developed and the expertise, and the engineers, and how many, and the footprint. I could go on and on. The challenge, of course, is that when that machine gets lined up around executing against one goal, there’s almost nothing the world can do to stop it. It is built to take on some of the biggest challenges. But doing the first step, getting everything lined up to go take something on—that’s typically the challenge in large companies, the self-organization problem in some ways.

What we have here at Wisk, which is unique, is a product development that is completely focused on one goal. Everyone wakes up every day and thinks about how do I certify Gen 6, the first commercial certified autonomous aircraft? What’s great about the relationship with Boeing is we try to get the best of both that you talked about. We try to do the “one plus one is three” on a subject. And how you mechanize that? It’s an art, not a science. It’s how you get the right senior tech fellows at Boeing who have the deepest experience in the whole industry on some individual subject, how you get them contributing to the Wisk program when that subject comes up. There’s art in how you actually do that. But when you do, magic happens.

I think the biggest misconception—this may not surprise you—is that many folks think that autonomy is a subject for tomorrow. And we believe that it’s ready and is a subject for today. If we want it tomorrow, we have to start today.

Brian Yutko

Robin Riedel: I have one more question I would love to ask you guys. There’s a lot of talk about the eVTOL industry and the advanced mobility industry, a lot of perspectives. What is the biggest misconception out there that you’re facing? This is a chance to clear it up. What is the thing that people get wrong about the industry?

Dirk Hoke: That’s a difficult question. I think right now, let's say, what we see as the biggest challenge is the speed of battery development. I think we all assumed it would be much faster.

Brian Yutko: I think the biggest misconception—this may not surprise you—is that many folks think that autonomy is a subject for tomorrow. And we believe that it’s ready and is a subject for today. If we want it tomorrow, we have to start today. That means building the airplanes, all the fun things we do here. It also means having the regulatory regimes ready to accept such aircraft in very safe ways and so on.

If we want to achieve that this decade or, as others have said, even in 2030 or in the early 2030s, we need to start on it today because that’s how long it takes.

Robin Riedel: Thank you, gentlemen, for making the time. It’s been fascinating, as always, to talk about the future of air mobility and hear your views. I learned a lot. And I very much look forward to flying on one of your vehicles in the not-so-distant future. I guess I’ll have to go to Paris next year.

Explore a career with us