This high-tech 911 helicopter could be the next step to flying cars

Starting with an emergency dispatch service, a new startup aims to gradually develop technologies required to become the Uber of autonomous flight.

This high-tech 911 helicopter could be the next step to flying cars
[Photo: Sean Captain]

I needed a while to figure out what engineer Mark Groden was up to. First his publicist emailed me, dissing claims by companies like Uber and Airbus that they could develop futuristic electric, autonomous craft within just a few years. Groden had a more realistic plan. But when we got on the phone, the 28-year-old co-founder of SkyRyse, which emerges from stealth today, started talking about the high cost of emergency helicopter flights and how radar and cameras could streamline operations. I failed to see the connection to flying cars.


It took a trip to a sunbaked airfield in California’s Central Valley for the full story to emerge. Groden is playing a long, long game toward becoming an autonomous air service provider along the lines of Uber’s madly ambitious Elevate program–a network of shared-ride air taxis, ultimately piloted by artificial intelligence. (He’s attracted alumni from Apple, Boeing, SpaceX, Tesla, and the U.S. military.) Groden’s initial business offering scarcely resembles that ultimate goal. But it provides the opportunity to collect the flight data required for developing the technologies.

SkyRyse CEO Mark Groden (at right) and pilot Chris Smith. [Photo: Sean Captain]
Uber burns through billions and billions of dollars, with the withering promise of eventually dominating some market: cabs, electric bikes, air taxis, whatever. With $25 million in funding–from Venrock, Eclipse, Stanford University, Industry Ventures, Trucks Venture Capital, and Engage Ventures–SkyRyse doesn’t have such luxury. Instead it’s starting with a transport network it believes can make money quickly–911 emergency response as a service.

“So right now if a city wants to stand up any type of operation with any air capability, they have to buy the aircraft, get the pilots–not single, but multiple pilots. They have to get the mechanics,” says Groden. “Instead, you can contract with SkyRyse, and you pay as you need it.”

Related: How Uber Plans To Get Flying Taxis Off The Ground

With every flight, the company is collecting data from sensor and instrument readings, from how pilots operate the controls, even from where pilots and passengers look around. The information will feed machine learning AI to develop pilot assistance tools and ultimately automated flight systems. Groden emphasizes repeatedly that automation is for a future business. Currently only human pilots are making decisions.

This is a natural progression for Groden, who began working on drone technology for the Air Force when he was just 16 years old. He went on to do a PhD in sensor fusion–the process of combining data from various sensors, such as cameras and sonar, to get a full picture of what a vehicle like an autonomous car or plane is doing. And that work requires a lot of real-world training data.


Air 911

Business began earlier this month in Tracy, a city of around 90,000 people located about 50 miles east of San Francisco. I showed up at the city’s municipal airport on August 17, the fifth day of of a two-week program. SkyRyse had taken every 911 call for law enforcement, and was on an FBI mission tracking drug dealers during my visit.

“That wasn’t in the plan, but we apparently impressed the police officers we’re working with,” says Groden. SkyRyse began flying medical technicians to emergencies the following week. By January 2019, the city of Tracy aims for SkyRyse to be part of the response to any type of 911 call.

While data-gathering toward the ultimate goal of autonomy plods along, SkyRyse is deploying advanced tech in its current operations. The company flies a Robinson R44 (specifically, the Raven II version)–a popular, relatively low-cost four-seater that Groden dubs the “Toyota Camry of helicopters” for its ubiquity and high safety record.

But this R44 is equipped with some exotic technologies such as phased-array radar. The expensive multi-antenna system provides a thorough scan that translates into a color-coded guide to safe flight paths over terrain.

I spoke with some experts who acknowledged the unusual setup. “I’ve never heard of a [radar] terrain-avoidance system in a low-cost helicopter like an R44,” says aeronautical engineer Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society (formerly the American Helicopter Society). It’s rare to see such technology outside of the military, added Hirschberg, who is not affiliated with SkyRyse.

The company’s chopper also has a collection of cameras whose video is stitched-together to display a 360-degree view around the craft on the cockpit’s 4K/UHD screen, making it easier for the pilot to maneuver. “If we can reduce the cognitive load on the pilot, then it allows him to be less fatigued,” says Groden. “And this is just the tip of the iceberg for what we have in plan.”


Cameras provide a 360-degree view below the helicopter. [Photo: Sean Captain]
However, some cheaper but effective safety technologies are already in wide use, according to Paul Schaaf, a 32-year veteran pilot, who is also unaffiliated with SkyRyse. Schaaf was chief helicopter pilot for the Fairfax County police department in Virginia and now works for STAT MedEvac, flying patients for Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

One example of common affordable safety tech, he says, is HTAWS, helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems. These GPS devices, made by companies like Garmin, carry a database of the terrain and obstacles, such as power lines. “It predicts where the aircraft is going to be in the next … 15 seconds or 30 seconds and alerts the pilot,” says Schaaf.

He’s also unsure about SkyRyse’s claim that some clever logistical management allows it to get in the air faster than municipal services can. Groden claims that SkyRyse can have a team in the air in two minutes. “If you’re working for a municipality and you have the helicopter on standby and the crew and everything [ready], it’s not unusual to get airborne in a minute and a half,” says Schaaf.

But Schaaf, who has flown for both the government and private sectors, does see promise in having contractors serve multiple municipalities. “[Governments] generally don’t do things really efficiently, and they tend to not be very forward-leaning,” he says. “A private group, trying to keep their blades turning, might be interested in doing a really great job.”

SkyRyse flies the popular Robinson R44 helicopter, modified with advanced radar, in front. [Photo: Sean Captain]

Starting with today’s tech

Standing within about 100 feet of the R44 as it takes off, I’m surprised it isn’t noisier. And as it gets a few thousand feet up, I can scarcely hear it. Still, I wouldn’t want to hear these things taking off and landing all around San Francisco. Nor would anyone else–including regulators.

Noise is one of the reasons that Uber and its aircraft partners like Boeing and Embraer are working on electric craft. They use multiple, smaller propellers and spend most of the trip in an airplane configuration, only using a noisy helicopter-style mode for takeoff and landing. The R44 looks primitive compared to the beautiful concept renderings of these electric craft.


Phased-array radar produces a color-coded terrain guide, showing safe altitude paths in green. [Photo: Sean Captain]
But the Camry of choppers is flying right now, offering plenty of opportunity to collect data for building assisted and ultimately autonomous flight technologies. “The existing airframe that can fly safely with people allows us to do an awful lot more a lot faster,” says Groden. “None of those [electric] aircraft work outside of experimental [flights]. That’s why we’re focused on [helicopters] now, but the technology is not limited to helicopters.”

About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.