Home / Companies / News /  Boeing expands focus on air taxis

Boeing Co. said it is investing a further $450 million in its air-taxi joint venture with Google co-founder Larry Page, developing small, pilotless aircraft for short passenger hops in and around cities.

The company’s Silicon Valley-based Wisk venture joins an expanding crowd of electric air vehicles that have attracted billions of dollars in new funding over the past year. Some aim to start service by the middle of the decade, though those efforts hinge on an evolving regulatory framework to ensure passenger safety.

Rival plane makers Airbus SE and Embraer SA are developing their own electric air taxis alongside other startups that have attracted interest and investment from airlines, private jet operators and aircraft leasing companies. The U.S. Air Force is also involved with developing flying taxis for military use.

Wisk was formed in 2019 through a joint venture between Boeing and Kitty Hawk Corp., an electric aircraft maker co-founded by Mr. Page. Wisk is developing a new aircraft seating three to four passengers that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter, flying autonomously without any pilot.

Rivals like Joby Aviation Inc. and Vertical Aerospace Group Ltd. are developing piloted, taxi-style aircraft that would later transition to autonomous flight, as executives expect regulators to first certify aircraft with flight crew.

Boeing didn’t provide a timeline for when the planned Wisk vehicle might enter service but said it would be after rivals with piloted aircraft.

“Autonomy has to be done from the very beginning," said Marc Allen, Boeing’s chief strategy officer. “The extra time that will take to certify is the trade-off."

U.K.-based Vertical, whose customers include American Airlines Group Inc., said it doesn’t expect regulators to approve pilotless vehicles this decade.

After closing its venture capital arm last year, Boeing, which reports quarterly results on Jan. 26, is focusing its air-taxi efforts on Wisk. The investment unit had pursued a number of prototypes and software to service an air-taxi market that analysts have predicted could involve thousands of small air vehicles operating by the mid-2030s.

Boeing laid the groundwork for its push into autonomous flight with the 2017 purchase of Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., a maker of aerial drones and pilotless flying systems. Boeing in 2016 bought Liquid Robotics, which produced underwater drones.

Wisk’s senior management is drawn heavily from Liquid Robotics. Boeing’s Mr. Allen said the company was opting to keep the air-taxi maker as a stand-alone entity in an effort to preserve what he said was its innovative culture.

Wisk plans to operate its own aircraft, while competitors plan to either sell them or pursue a hybrid model of selling some and doing their own flying in some cities. Mr. Allen said Boeing could incorporate Wisk’s development work into the aerospace giant’s future military and cargo projects.

Five air taxi ventures went public in the U.S. in 2021 through special-purpose acquisition companies. Embraer shares jumped 15% in December on the day it announced plans to list its Eve UAM LLC air taxi venture.

Boeing already has a majority stake in Wisk and didn’t disclose details of prior investments or the venture’s enterprise value. Most listed air taxi companies are valued at $1 billion to $2 billion. Joby Aviation, which listed in August and plans to launch ride-sharing services with its piloted air vehicle in 2024, is valued at $2.95 billion.

American, United Airlines Holdings Inc. and some U.S. commuter carriers have signed deals to potentially acquire hundreds of air taxis from emerging manufacturers like Vertical and Archer Aviation Inc. when regulators agree they are safe to fly and mass produce.

“The really difficult aspect is achieving production certification," said Kenn Ricci, principal of Directional Aviation Capital, which owns private jet and aircraft maintenance operations and is co-sponsoring Eve’s planned listing.

Regulators in the U.S., Europe, Brazil and elsewhere are at different stages in developing rules for the manufacture and flying of air taxis, executives said.

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