Airborne Methods to Modernize Medical Transport Fleet with FlightOS Control Interface

The Skyryse FlightOS flight control interface, shown here in a simulator at the startup’s tech lab, will be retrofitted to 400 fixed- and rotary-wing air medical transport aircraft under a new agreement between the Los-based startup Angeles and Air Methods, one of the largest providers of air medical services in the United States (Photo, courtesy of Skyryse)

Air Methods, one of the largest air medical service providers and helicopter operator in the United States, has signed a new deal with California-based transportation technology provider Skyryse to retrofit more than 400 single-engine helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft with FlightOS automation hardware and software.

Skyryse started making headlines in 2019 after using its flight stack automation technology – a combination of helicopter flight and communication systems, including “smart helipads” – to fly autonomously a Robinson R44 helicopter modified without human intervention. In addition to modernizing its air medical transport fleet with FlightOS, Air Methods will invest $5 million in a Series B funding round for Skyryse, bringing the startup’s total raised to $205 million.

The total fleet of aircraft owned, leased or maintained by Air Methods includes more than 450 helicopters – the largest civilian helicopter fleet in the world – and fixed-wing aircraft operating at more than 300 bases across the United States, carrying more than 100,000 people last year. A partnership video released by the two companies shows Air Methods pilots evaluating new Skyryse FlightOS technology in Big Bear, Calif., replacing traditional cyclic flight controls with a side-stick and touchpad interface to the pilots.

Mark Groden, CEO of Skyryse, said International Avionics in emailed statements, the modernization program will replace the cockpit systems of fixed and rotary wing aircraft in the Air Methods fleet with a “full electric flight system built to commercial airliner standards.” This setup is paired with Skyryse’s “universal cockpit and four-axis side stick,” according to Groden, who also notes that the company provides all of the necessary communication and navigation systems as well as the sensors needed to activate their system.

“We will replace traditional flight controls, avionics, radios, GPS and ADS-B with our system,” Groden said. “We are replacing complex, airframe-specific flight controls with a touchscreen interface and four-axis side stick. This change significantly reduces pilot workload in the cockpit and we also handle emergency situations such as than autorotation. We are currently performing autorotations with FlightOS, an industry first.”

As Groden previously explained in a March 2020 interview with Avionics, FlightOS is designed to be easy enough to control and learn so that people with little or no flight experience can learn how to use it. While flight controls are manipulated via the touchscreen tablet and side stick configuration, on-board computers control all aspects of the flight envelope, manage airframe structure and aerodynamic operating limits, and leverage radar and exterior sensors for real-time situational awareness.

Skyryse has continued to raise capital and develop its FlightOS technology, as well as provide media demonstrations over the past year. Michael Huerta, the former FAA administrator, and Chris Hart, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), were also added as advisers in November.

Groden said the company was unable to share details about the cloud computing and IT infrastructure needed to enable FlightOS or images of what the modernized Air Methods fleet will look like once upgrades are complete for the moment.

“As Air Medical’s primary supplier in the United States, we are always looking for ways to make rotor and fixed-wing flight safer,” JaeLynn Williams, CEO of Air Methods, said in a statement. “Skyryse is cutting-edge technology that will bring about a step change in the safety of rotor and fixed-wing flight, not just for Air Methods, but for our customers and the entire HEMS industry.”