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Autonomous helicopter startup Skyryse demonstrates tech that could power urban air taxis

The California-based company is one of many with dreams of flocks of air taxis whizzing above cities in the near future

Skyryse, an autonomous helicopter startup, unveiled the technology stack that it says will enable future fleets of air taxis to fly themselves over cities. It also released footage from a demonstration flight of one of its autonomous helicopters from earlier this year.

The Hawthorne, California-based company is one of many with dreams of flocks of air taxis whizzing above cities in the near future. But rather than expend a lot of energy trying to build an electric-powered vehicle from the ground up, Skyryse is using regular helicopters as a platform to demonstrate its autonomous technology. Skyryse released a video depicting a modified Robinson R-44, a Federal Aviation Administration-approved helicopter, flying itself with two pilots inside as backup.

Skyryse isn’t the only company with dreams of self-flying aircraft. “Flying car” startups like Ehang and Volocotper have demonstrated their respective autonomous aircraft over the years. Two of the world’s biggest aerospace companies, Airbus and Boeing, are also working on autonomous air taxi projects. Sikorsky, a 96-year-old helicopter company, let The Verge’s Sean O’Kane sit in the pilot’s seat of its experimental SARA (Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft) autonomous helicopter.

Skyryse is taking a more pragmatic approach by demonstrating its technology in helicopters that are in wide use today. The company refits existing consumer-grade certified aircraft and technologies with its software and hardware suite. “Each component of the system works in triplicate with airline-grade, fail-operational technology to ensure that automation functions remain operational at all times, even in the presence of equipment failures,” the company says.

The company isn’t just focused on fully autonomous flights. Skyryse’s system also automates specific aspects of a flight, “similar to cruise control for cars, under high-level guidance from the pilot.” A suite of sensors helps steer, stabilize, and direct the helicopter, while monitoring other flight data. The aircraft is constantly monitored to ensure it doesn’t exceed safety limits, especially in emergency situations.

Autonomous take-off and landing capabilities are enabled by ground-based sensors embedded in the helipad. These sensors communicate with the helicopter and monitor changes in the weather to ensure a safer flight. It also detects any low-flying objects such as drones or birds.

Skyryse first emerged from stealth last year with a mission to “make air transportation accessible and safe for everyone as a new mode of transportation.”