US air taxi maker Joby Aviation has acquired the autonomy division of start-up Xwing, enabling it to eventually deploy pilotless technology in its developmental electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. 

Santa Cruz-based Joby disclosed the deal on 4 June, adding that it had acquired ”all of Xwing’s existing automation and autonomy technology activities”, as well the company’s engineers, researchers and technologists. Terms of the acquisition – paid for in shares of Joby’s stock – have not been disclosed. 

Joby is still planning to roll out initial passenger operations with a piloted version of its four-passenger eVTOL, the S4-2. 

“The aircraft we are certifying will have a fully qualified pilot on board, but we recognise that a future generation of autonomous aircraft will play an important part in unlocking our vision of making clean and affordable aerial mobility as accessible as possible,” says JoeBen Bevirt, Joby’s founder and chief executive.  

Joby New York

Source: Joby Aviation

Joby has acquired fellow Bay Area start-up Xwing, which has worked to develop fully autonomous flight technologies for existing turboprops 

California Bay Area start-up Xwing has for several years been working towards US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification of its autonomous flight technology. Xwing runs a Part 135 cargo operation that makes hundreds of piloted flights monthly on behalf of UPS with a fleet of Cessna 208B Grand Caravans. The company has been working to transition its fleet to fully remote cargo operations. 

In April 2023, Xwing submitted a project-specific certification plan to the FAA, “which would allow the company to start operating 100% unmanned commercial cargo flights upon certification”, the company said at the time. 

That made Xwing’s unmanned aerial system the first to be assigned FAA resources for a standard category airworthiness certificate. Though designed for cargo operations, the Superpilot system is benchmarked against current safety standards for passenger aircraft. 

More recently, the company secured a military flight release from the US Air Force and completed a series of flights demonstrating the real-world cargo applications of its technology. 

The Superpilot system has completed 250 fully autonomous gate-to-gate flights and more than 500 auto-landings since 2020, Joby says. 

“The exceptionally talented Xwing team has not only made unparalleled progress on the development and certification of vision systems, sensor fusion and decision-making autonomous technologies, but they’ve also successfully demonstrated the real-life application of their technology, flying hundreds of fully autonomous flights in the national airspace,” Bevirt says. 

Xwing Cessna-c-Xwing

Source: Xwing

Xwing’s test flights have been centred on the Cessna Grand Caravan platform

Xwing’s personnel will now integrate into Joby’s operations, focusing on developing a roadmap for applying autonomous flight technologies to the S4-2 and advancing Joby’s relationship with the US Department of Defense. 

“Xwing’s goal of connecting communities with clean and affordable autonomous flight aligns closely with Joby’s long-term vision,” says Maxime Gariel, the start-up’s chief technology officer. ”I can’t imagine a better home for the Xwing team to realise our shared vision.”

Rival air taxi maker Archer Aviation has a partnership with autonomous eVTOL developer WIsk, which the companies say will bring Wisk’s technologies to future variants of Archer’s Midnight aircraft. 

Robin Riedel, who co-leads the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility, tells FlightGlobal that embracing autonomy is “a natural next step in the evolution of eVTOL”. 

Manual flying skills are already less emphasised in eVTOL designs, ”as they leverage fly-by-wire to manage the complex system of propulsors, tilting mechanisms and control surfaces”, Riedel says. ”This enables a easier transition to uncrewed or autonomous aircraft as much of the new capability would be software rather than hardware.” 

Pilotless configurations also free up space for another paying passenger, which could prove critical for the economics of the air taxi mission, Riedel says. 

Declining to comment on specific companies, Riedel says that as funding for start-ups has become more difficult to secure in recent months, acquisitions and combinations could become more appealing for players in the advanced air mobility space. 

”Acquiring capabilities in this area is attractive as it could become a competitive differentiator and allow better integration of the next generation of technology than working with external suppliers,” he says. 

He considers major acquisitions and mergers between eVTOL OEMs to be unlikely, however, as ”there are often not enough real assets present [and] technologies are in most cases different enough that design and [intellectual property] is less interesting to acquire”. 

Joby says its acquisition of Xwing complements its previous purchase of Austria’s Inras, which is developing lightweight and high-performance radar sensors. In addition, the company owns Germany-based hydrogen powertrain developer H2FLY.