Skyryse, a venture-backed tech aviation startup, has raised $200 million in its effort to figure out a way for any doofus to fly a helicopter with two Apple iPads and a joystick, it announced on Wednesday. The company plans to use the money to speed up development of its automation system, FlightOS, which the company claims can “enable anyone to fly as safely as the best pilots on their best day.”
"The general aviation industry is about to change forever," Skyryse CEO and founder Mark Groden said in a release. "We're on a mission to empower anyone to fly anywhere in any aircraft as safely as the most experienced pilots in the world.”
A spokesperson for the company went further. Skyryse hopes to “democratize the skies,” the spokesperson said, adding, “This will affect where we travel, live, work, and how we choose to spend our free time. Our goal is to completely transform our everyday lives.” (The spokesperson did clarify that people cannot fly Skyryse helicopters without a pilot license right now.)
To prove what sounds at least a little, uh, concerning? is actually completely fun and fine, the company released a carefully crafted video of Mad Men superstar Jon Hamm doing just that! How is it that anyone might one day be able to fly an aircraft?
Here’s how it works, according to the company:
Skyryse's FlightOS replaces the complex controls in a typical cockpit with touchscreen tablets and a joystick, and its fly-by-wire hardware and software handles everything else. The technology protects the pilot from exiting the flight envelope, removes nearly all of the complexities of flying and safely manages the aircraft through emergencies. Pilots can learn to fly a Skyryse-equipped aircraft in minutes, instead of weeks, and the system can safely fly in zero-visibility conditions.
The release also makes clear that the company is “committed to designing a system with unprecedented levels of safety.” To prove this, the company revealed that one of its helicopters recently “autonomously entered an autorotation and controlled the descent while gliding to earth without engine power or pilot intervention.” “We had a flight test engineer at the FlightOS controls as well as a safety pilot,” the spokesperson told Motherboard. (Bless their innovative hearts!)
Skyryse is staffed up with former members of SpaceX, Uber, Boeing, Tesla, JetBlue and the U.S. military, and has also “brought on” two authoritative-sounding advisers. One is a former head of the Federal Aviation Administration, and the other former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Their job is, conveniently enough, to “help guide its FAA certification process.”
The company has already partnered with five manufacturers that “collectively produce over half of the world's new general aviation aircraft.” Skyryse thinks it can solve the worldwide pilot shortage, which is at least partially a result of some airlines deciding not to pay pilots as much as in the old days, and noted that “most accidents are due to pilot error.” Groden, the founder, also argued this would help with fighting fires and relieving city traffic somehow.
The company had a little featurette in the New York Times come out Monday, complete with fun GIFs and everything. In it, tech correspondent Cade Metz described flying over Ventura County and landing “gently at the end of a concrete runway.”
“I flew using two Apple iPads and a joystick mounted inside the cockpit. I could take off, turn, swivel, accelerate, climb, dive, hover and land with a tap of the screen or a twist of the stick, much as I would when flying through the digital space of a video game,” Metz wrote. (The spokesperson emphasized to Motherboard that the company’s system includes “touch screen interfaces that are far more robust than an iPad” and that “production hardware will be aviation grade touchscreens.”)
Metz said it took about 15 minutes to learn “the basics of the Skyryse system” before they took off, and his biggest issue was the glare of the sun off the iPad and his glasses—oh, except for when he moved his joystick too aggressively, after which the until-then unmentioned licensed pilot next to him “reached over, grabbed the joystick and corrected my attitude.”
As Metz’s own little oopsie shows, there may be some issues with giving the keys to a flying machine to anyone out there. Metz said some manufacturers one day hope to just get rid of the pilots outright—or at least kick them out of the cockpit—and supposedly “experts” think self-driving helicopters will be easier to get right than self-driving cars “because there is less traffic and other activity in the skies.”
But the industry sounds resigned to the fact that, for now at least, those pesky regulators probably aren’t going to allow people-less helicopters to roam the skies safely, and Skyryse says the goal is to have a human there too, not to automate a massive section of the global economy.
The spokesperson for the company told Motherboard that while FlightOS is “a fully automated flight control system,” the pilot remains “in full control and the decision maker at all times.” The goal of the system is to “reduce pilot fatigue and system complexity” and improve “flight safety.”
“We can build an autonomous aircraft and fly it,” Groden told the New York Times. “But a human still needs to be the ultimate decision maker.”