Last week, Boeing’s electric vertical take-off and landing subsidiary, Wisk, announced that an uncrewed aircraft had successfully completed a series of trial flights under instrument flight rules in New Zealand. The aircraft was not an eVTOL, but instead a small fixed-wing drone from another Boeing subsidiary, Insitu Pacific. The flights were nevertheless a significant milestone for Wisk, which intends to operate its self-flying Gen 6 eVTOL under IFR when it comes to market later this decade.
Wisk is not the only autonomous aircraft developer that is counting on using the IFR system to facilitate its operations. Consequently, the flight tests — which were conducted as part of the New Zealand government’s Airspace Integration Trials program — have broader relevance to the industry as an example of integrating uncrewed with conventionally piloted aircraft in controlled airspace. For this trial, the key unlock was the novel concept of “IFR equivalence”, which permitted the remotely piloted CT-220 drone to mix with crewed aircraft under New Zealand’s existing regulatory framework.
“The greatest challenge to us as an air navigation service provider (ANSP) was determining how we were going to allow the aircraft to operate in controlled airspace, because if it wasn’t VFR (visual flight rules) or IFR, then by law we’re not able to allow it to integrate into controlled airspace,” explained James Evans, acting general manager of air traffic services at Airways New Zealand, the country’s ANSP and one of the partners in the trial.
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