Twenty-nine-year-old engineer Mark Groden has been learning to fly helicopters over the past year. But he’s already taught a helicopter how to fly without him. Back in March 2017, Groden’s startup, Skyryse, first launched a completely autonomous copter, which took off, flew for 15 minutes, and landed at a small airport in Silver Springs, Nevada—about 40 miles southeast of Reno.
Groden just shared that story with me a few days ago—over a year after we first met. Until now, Skyryse has kept quiet about its autonomous flying achievements. That changes today as the company unveils a stunning video of a copter flying itself—not over empty rural skies but across Los Angeles.
A human pilot is on board, however, their hands inches away from the controls, ready to take over. This doesn’t represent an interim stage before the computer can fly solo. It’s how Groden thinks humans and machines will team up to fly ride-sharing passengers in the coming years.
Groden doesn’t want to take pilots out of helicopters. He wants to put a lot more pilots in them—newer ones ready to start flying after accruing hundreds, rather than thousands, of hours of flight experience. They will tend a system that largely flies itself, allowing the pilot to focus on the overall mission rather than the second-by-second struggle to keep the copter steady.
“If you’re flying a helicopter, if you literally scratch your nose and take your hand off the [control], the thing will roll upside down. It’s that quick,” says Groden. “It’s the opposite with this system. If you let go, it’s stable, because it’s taking care of you,” he says. “And if you try to induce instability by accident, it won’t let you.”
These aren’t promises for the future. Groden claims the company’s tech, known as the Flight Stack, already flies a helicopter as safely and smoothly—if not better than—a master pilot with 6,000 hours’ experience. Skyryse currently plans to use its technology to eventually roll out a helicopter-share fleet (it might also consider licensing Flight Stack to other air providers).
Not having ridden in the robotic helicopter, I can’t check Groden’s claim. But on previous visits with Skyryse, I have enjoyed a couple of silky-smooth flights with the company’s 6,000-hour pilots.
If the automated system is close to their skill level, it may entice people to climb aboard—not for the sense of adventure but for the dull reliability of an everyday commute. Groden says the goal is to make flying as routine as an elevator ride. “If I asked you the last time you were in an elevator, you probably wouldn’t remember,” says Groden. “Forgetability . . . indicates that it is such a consistent and safe and reliable service.”
The real flying car
With a lot more pilots and willing passengers, Groden claims he can achieve an economy of scale in which it doesn’t cost any more to travel by helicopter than by car.
Let me repeat that: Groden says that you will pay the same price in the future for one of the three seats in Skyryse’s helicopters that you do for a seat in a shared car today. (Not that cars are completely out of the picture. Skyryse plans to bundle car service to and from the helipads.)
For passengers, the experience would be just like catching the bus—except the stop would be a helipad, and there’d be no need for a dedicated lane. In fact, the reliable affordability of the bus is exactly what Groden aspires to: “Our goal is to make urban flying . . . as accessible as riding a bus.”
Our goal is to make urban flying . . . as accessible as riding a bus.”
How is this possible? It’s just math, Groden explains. Helicopters can get places much faster than cars, so they can transport more people per hour. He gives the realistic (by L.A. standards) example of a rush-hour trip that takes two hours by car but only 15 minutes by air. A helicopter can fly eight trips in the time it takes a car to make one.
Neat calculations aside, it’s still mind-boggling to think that helicopter service—the province of the elite—could soon best the trusty, ubiquitous automobile. But Groden has convinced people to bankroll this vision. The company has picked up $38 million from investors including Venrock, Eclipse Ventures, Fontinalis, Stanford University, and Ford Motor Company’s executive chairman Bill Ford.
Groden’s also attracted top engineers and execs a generation or two his senior. Gonzalo Rey, the company’s CTO and brains behind the new autonomous Flight Stack, oversaw work on the flight controllers for the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 airliners. The company has also recruited vets from companies including Airbus, Boeing, Ford, JetBlue, SpaceX, Tesla, and Uber.
Groden is used to being the youngest one in the room. By age 16, he had already acquired the technical chops to work as an aeronautical engineer at the U.S. Air Force lab. There he designed a drone that the U.S. military has used to search for IEDs in Afghanistan. At age 26, he finished his PhD in sensor technology at the University of Michigan and founded Skyryse.
Skyryse will continue tuning its tech until it can launch at that car-like price point. Groden won’t say on the record how soon he expects that to happen, but he seems to be targeting a very, very ambitious timetable. “The technology will propel us to a place where we will be at parity with the car far sooner than most people would expect,” he says. (Skyryse hasn’t announced where it will launch, but Groden does emphasize that it is an L.A.-based company.)
For a former resident of L.A. county, it’s easy for me to see the benefits of an affordable air taxi service. When I lived in L.A., 45 minutes seemed to be the absolute minimum for any trip around the city, and it wasn’t uncommon to spend an hour or more getting somewhere.
But when I visited Skyryse back in June 2019, I got a preview of the company’s vision for the future. Groden showed me a new way to see my old home during a human-piloted helicopter flight from their hangar in Hawthorne (next to Elon Musk’s Space X) about 20 miles up the coast to Malibu, around rush hour. Our flight took about 14 minutes. By car, it could have lasted about an hour and a half at that time of day.
The speed, and view from up high, changed my impression of the city. Neighborhoods that had always seemed disconnected from the ground now appeared as parts of a tight-knit landscape. If we ever can fly affordably—really affordably—the urban jumble could be transformed into a coherent, accessible community.
What about the experience on the ground, as helicopters roar overhead all day? Groden claims that Skyryse’s Flight Stack can overcome the physics that produce that infuriating thump-thump-thump helicopter sound. The sound basically comes from one blade smacking into the turbulence made by the other blade, what Groden calls “the dog catching its tail.” He says that through extensive data collection, Skyryse has figured out how to finesse the speed and position of the helicopter, also accounting for variables like wind, so that the blade never smacks into turbulence. Expert pilots can be trained to fly this way, but Flight Stack can also do it automatically.
That tech wasn’t in place during my visit, though, and the video Skyryse released is set to soaring music. So I’ll reserve judgment until I hear—or don’t hear—the copter for myself.
Balancing present and future tech
Skyryse has plenty of competition pursuing the air taxi market, and it’s far from first to the game. But Groden thinks Skyryse can ultimately win by choosing its technological battles. Instead of trying to build a flying car from scratch, it’s developing futuristic autonomous technology to fly the gas-powered helicopters of today.
The biggest player currently is Blade, which has been providing app-based charter booking of traditional helicopters in the U.S. since 2014. It now also offers per-seat pricing on shared shuttle flights to and from airports. Flights take off and land at all three major New York City airports, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., roughly twice per hour, Monday through Friday (plus some Sunday flights), for $195 each way. Blade, which counts Airbus as a major backer, recently expanded its shuttle services to L.A. Up the coast, Blade also operates in the Bay Area. So does Airbus’s own subsidiary, Voom—which offers shuttles between airports for around $250.
Global rideshare behemoth Uber dipped into the helicopter business in June with a $200 New York City airport shuttle service. That’s just the first step in Uber’s grand plan, called Elevate, to one day fill urban skies with morphing electric planes that transform to helicopter mode for pinpoint vertical take-off and landing (VTOL). Aerospace giants including Boeing and Embraer are developing these futuristic VTOL craft for Uber’s network—which it plans to launch in three cities, including L.A., starting in 2023. (Separate from Uber, Airbus is also working on autonomous electric VTOL craft.)
Groden says he expects electric aircraft to eventually take over. They have the potential to be even quieter and cheaper to run. And they should be much greener than today’s gas guzzlers. He just isn’t waiting on the new vehicles before starting his business. “We’re using hardware that’s already been [FAA] certified,” says Groden. “Everything we’re doing is as pragmatic and purpose-designed, and engineered with well-understood requirements as it possibly can be.”
Skyryse did toy with launching regular piloted services, in a test program that shuttled about 1,000 passengers on 34-mile trips between John Wayne Airport in Orange County and downtown L.A.—a 14-minute flight that could take one to two hours in heavy traffic. The price, including car service to and from the helipads, was $149.
Though that beats the competition, it was still far from affordable for average people; and Skyryse discontinued the program. “We ultimately saw that getting our automation technology to market sooner was the better and faster and more responsible approach to the ultimate goal of mass urban flight adoption,” says Groden.
Groden’s visions become even grander from this point. With helicopter rides so cheap, people will start getting rid of their cars, he predicts, even in L.A. Rideshare companies like Uber have made similar predictions, based on technology that already exists, but they have not come to pass.
This is actually is a much more effective way of moving cities than it might seem at first blush.”
Groden also envisions that communities, seeing the benefits of air commuting, will enthusiastically start building rooftop helipads all over town. For now, air taxi operators are limited mainly to pads at established airports like LAX or Santa Monica and just a smattering of rooftops, like one in downtown L.A. But L.A. and other cities have plenty more helipads. They are dormant—due to economics or public opposition.
In addition to the infrastructure challenges, there are several psychological barriers that communities may or may not overcome. For one, helicopters scare people. Just one accident can set the industry back years or decades. After the fatal crash by a confused, solo-flying pilot in Manhattan in June, politicians called for a complete shutdown of the civilian helicopter business (although there’s no sign of that coming to pass). And no matter how good its noise-killing technology may be, Skyryse will have a lot of work to convince residents that its copters won’t ruin the neighborhood.
Of course road traffic, and building ever more roads, aren’t good for the neighborhood, either. “This is actually is a much more effective way of moving cities than it might seem at first blush,” says Groden. “You don’t need to build infrastructure to increase throughput. You just need more assets because you can layer them in three-dimensional spaces.”
In other words, the sky is the limit. And cities have lots and lots of sky, says Groden. “It will not happen in my lifetime that we will saturate the skies,” he says. That could be a while into the future. Groden only turns 30 on Friday.