Japan Airlines has sights on autonomous air taxis

Would you get in a pilotless aircraft? Japan Airlines is betting on it. The Tokyo-based airline this month announced a partnership with Silicon Valley tech startup Wisk Aero that could bring self-flying, all-electric air taxi services to Japan.

In short, there’s a future where you might take a bullet train across the country, only to disembark and make the last few miles of your journey in what’s essentially a helicopter with no pilot.

Under the terms of the partnership, Wisk Aero would provide the aircraft, while a combination of both Wisk and JAL Engineering (that’s the engineering arm of Japan Airlines, also known as JAL) would together develop plans for the maintenance and operation of Wisk’s autonomous air taxis. 

Of course, this hardly means that you’ll be able to hop in an autonomous flying aircraft anytime in Japan soon.

“In Japan, the introduction of autonomous air travel is developing and we strongly feel that this partnership with Wisk is the first step towards the development of the next generation of safe air mobility in Japan,” Ryo Tamura, CEO of JALEC, said in a prepared statement.

What’s next for a Japan Airlines autonomous air taxi future?

The tl,dr: in terms of what to expect from the Japan Airlines air taxi future: a lot of meetings and paperwork.

For now, the extent of the partnership is largely that a memorandum of understanding has been signed. That creates a documented collaboration framework between not just Japan Airlines and Wisk, but also the Japanese Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB), and other relevant agencies within the Japanese government.

“This will include careful consideration of regulatory requirements, safety measures, and how the community can benefit from advanced air mobility through the use of Wisk’s 6th Generation self-flying, electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft,” according to a statement from Wisk.

Among the agenda items that need to be worked out within all those groups:

  • Getting type certification approval in Japan for Wisk’s 6th Generation taxi
  • Establishing repair and overhaul requirements for the Wisk air taxi
  • Obtaining an Air Operators Certificate for Wisk operations in Japan
  • Launching that first demonstration flight

All that, before ultimately introducing autonomous aircraft within Japan’s national airspace system.

Photo courtesy of Wisk.

What to know about Wisk

Wisk is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area but has operations all around the world. Its backers include The Boeing Company, which is the world’s largest aerospace company.

And although it’s based in the U.S., the folks at Wisk seem interested to bring air taxis to Japan as well as other Asian countries.

“Japan represents a large, densely populated market where air taxi services can provide real, positive impact for local communities,” Catherine MacGowan, Wisk’s APAC Regional Director said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to further pursuing the potential introduction of our self-flying, all-electric air taxis in Japan, and are encouraged by the growing interest within the broader APAC region for these types of services.” 

What about Kitty Hawk?

Wisk is closely tied to now-defunct eVTOL aviation company Kitty Hawk Corporation, which was founded in 2010 by autonomous car expert Sebastian Thrun and had backing by Google co-founder Larry Page. (Note that this Kitty Hawk is not the same as the LAANC service provider formerly known as Kittyhawk, which ultimately rebranded to Aloft in 2021).

Kitty Hawk’s success has been, well, mixed. It’s made some big contributions including participating in the Air Force Research Laboratory’s AFWERX Agility Prime program.

In 2019, Kitty Hawk — together with The Boeing Company — created a new ‘joint venture’ called Wisk, which was specifically built to further develop an aircraft called Cora, which was initially designed by Kitty Hawk (though Wisk operates separately from Kitty Hawk and Boeing).

Kitty Hawk had also been developing another aircraft called the Heaviside H2. And in 2021, Kitty Hawk demonstrated the first UAM beyond-visual-line-of-sight flight in the U.S. with its H2 aircraft. That test flight was part of a joint effort with the FAA, the Air Force and SkyVision, a ground-based radar service.

Also in 2021, Kitty Hawk acquired whatever was left of 3D Robotics, a seemingly-promising American drone company that could’ve competed with DJI — but instead managed to burn through $100 million in venture capital funding and ultimately shut down. As part of that acquisition, 3D Robotics co-founder Chris Anderson became Kitty Hawk’s chief operating officer. Alas, his role was short-lived.

But in 2022, Kitty Hawk shut down, and neither Thrun nor Anderson moved over to Wisk.

Fortunately though for folks yearning for a future where air taxis exist, it seems like Wisk has put itself in a better position than Kitty Hawk ever was to make it happen. Thus far, Wisk has conducted more than 1,600 test flights.

Wisk in January 2023 named Brian Yutko as its new CEO (Yutko had previously been Vice President and Chief Engineer of Sustainability & Future Mobility at Boeing). This year it’s spent significant resources working with the FAA in developing consensus standards. It’s also collaborating with NASA on research around safe, multi-vehicle operations. 

And at a time where other autonomous vehicle companies are laying off staff (Alphabet’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, as well as another self-driving car startup, Nuro, are among those that have undergone major layoffs this year), Wisk is growing. There are dozens of open positions on Wisk’s careers page.

Representatives from Wisk Aero and Japan Airlines. Photo courtesy of Wisk.

How Japan Airlines could fit in the autonomous flight industry

As for Japan Airlines, which was founded in 1951 and became the first international airline in Japan, it might be the first airline to have its own autonomous, flying vehicles. Other airlines have had their hands in the drone industry, but generally not for air taxis. LATAM Airlines, EasyJet and Korean Air have all used drones to some extent to conduct inspections of their passenger (piloted) aircraft.

Japanese airline ANA has partnered with German-based drone delivery company Wingcopter to explore drone deliveries. In that team up, the two aviation companies conducted trials using Wingcopter’s electrical fixed-wing VTOL aircraft to test how it could build a drone delivery network across Japan. ANA has also had its hands in researching drone traffic management systems.

Other big players have been in and out of the air taxi game. Hyundai’s Supernal has shown promise. And another company, Joby Aviation, has received massive investor funding. Others, like Uber Elevate, have folded.

But with Japan Airlines’ extensive aviation experience and high marks, maybe Japan Airlines is the one to make flying taxis happen at a wide scale.

The airline flies to more than 400 airports in 60 countries. It’s been named one of the most punctual major international airlines, plus it’s a certified 5-Star Airline by Skytrax and a “World Class” airline by APEX. Even the Japan Airlines economy class seats get rave reviews.

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