New Zealand is well positioned to shape the future of transport and create massive opportunities.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Anna Kominik – New Zealand Country Director of Wisk – an American urban air mobility company invested in New Zealand to develop and test the world’s first self-flying electric taxi. The future of transport is exciting and the opportunities are massive for New Zealand.
The conversation was recorded in March 2020 before New Zealand went into COVID lockdown/shut down. You can listen to the full discussion, including the first 21 minutes covering COVID, on the player at the bottom of the page.
Listen here for the discussion on the future of transport:
Wisk are shaping the future of accessible everyday flight operating on set high demand air corridors (like invisible train tracks in the sky), for example, taking passengers from a city centre to an airport or across a body of water. Their two-person aircraft takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane, removing the need for runways.
It is an exciting future which New Zealand is uniquely positioned to influence and shape. The New Zealand Government, in October 2019, moved to take advantage of this announcing it was establishing an industry-wide Airspace Integration Trial to work with leading, innovative domestic and international industry partners to safely test and demonstrate unmanned aircraft. Unsurprisingly, given its existing presence in New Zealand, Wisk reached an agreement with the Government to establish the world’s first autonomous passenger-transport trial in Tekapo.
Domestic transport in 10 years’ time
Wisk arrived in New Zealand in late 2016 and began working with the New Zealand Government, iwi, business partners and the community to fulfil their vision for the future of transport. Less than a year later they shipped their first fully electric and autonomous air taxi, called Cora, to Tekapo and began testing shortly after.
For Wisk’s New Zealand Director Anna Kominik the future of air mobility has huge potential.
“We can’t build more roads globally, so really the only place we can go is up. In America they lose about an hour and a half a day commuting. Those are significant productivity issues for communities, let alone sitting in traffic in a gas guzzler, so having these electric aircraft available as an option is part of that evolution of transport.”
That evolution is being made possible by advances in battery technology which is making the electrification of vehicles more economically viable both on land and in the sky.
However, Anna says the technology still has some way to go.
“It’s really the strength of the batteries to lift the passengers and aircraft that is inhibiting how big our aircraft are. As battery technology improves these aircraft will get bigger so this really is the start of the electric aircraft evolution.”
The other dependent factor is consumer willingness to adopt the new technology, though Anna believes the younger generation is particularly open to the idea.
“There’s a significant change in that consumers are starting to become more collective in our use of transport options. You see that with the take-off of e-scooters and bikes. This gives huge opportunities for different types of transport to emerge into the market.”
But she says there’s still a lot of work to be done to make Wisk’s dream for the evolution of air transport a reality.
“This is not going to be The Jetsons within 10 or 20 years because we have a lot of things to work out in bringing a new technology into an ecosystem.”
Why New Zealand
When Wisk was looking for countries to trial their technology in, Anna says New Zealand came top of the list for a variety of reasons.
“When we were looking for a place to come, because we knew we wouldn’t necessarily be able to do it in the US, we looked at a matrix of innovation elements and then went around about 7-8 jurisdictions. That matrix had everything from IP law, to ease of doing business, to having a credible Civil Aviation Authority. New Zealand as a western economy gave us a marketplace to learn from.”
Anna also credits the whole of government approach led by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to cement New Zealand as a global leader in designing the regulatory framework for autonomous passenger aircraft.
“New Zealand has a competitive advantage to determine what the industry looks like globally which is really exciting.”
Opportunity for New Zealand
Anna believes New Zealand is well placed to be a leader in the evolution of air mobility.
“The beauty from New Zealand’s perspective is that we’re actually at the forefront of this industry partly because of the work Wisk is doing but also because of some of the companies that have come in off the back off our presence here. You develop an ecosystem with all associated service providers, like Rocket Lab has, to create an industry with a whole lot of opportunities for New Zealand to become a high value skills-based economy.”
Since they began testing in Tekapo in 2017 they’ve created local jobs and contributed to businesses in the region.
The company is also working closely with South Island iwi Ngāi Tahu to support young people to consider careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). This partnership has mutual benefits and for Wisk ensures it has its workforce of the future, like electric aircraft engineers and autonomous flight-testing engineers.
“So many times, companies come to New Zealand and invest but it’s like a hand on the sand, when they disappear there’s nothing left. I really believe what we’re doing with partnerships, internships and working with the universities to identify local talent to train up and bring onboard, those are the sorts of things that will ensure New Zealand is able to take advantage of this valuable new industry.”
Listen to the full episode here including COVID discussion: