I’m Not a Pilot, but I Just Flew a Helicopter Over California

CAMARILLO, Calif. — On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I flew a helicopter over Ventura County, just north of Los Angeles.

I took off from a small airport, climbed to about 10,000 feet and banked sharply toward the hills along the eastern skyline of Camarillo. Following a canal as it snaked through the orange orchards below, I sped across the valley, before circling back to the airport. I lowered the helicopter into a hover and landed gently at the end of a concrete runway.

The flight was short but remarkable. After all, I am not a pilot.

The helicopter was equipped with new technology meant to simplify and automate the operation of passenger aircraft. I flew using two Apple iPads and a joystick mounted inside the cockpit. I could take off, turn, swivel, accelerate, climb, dive, hover and land with a tap of the screen or a twist of the stick, much as I would when flying through the digital space of a video game.

The system, called FlightOS, provides a glimpse into the future of flight. The Southern California start-up that designed FlightOS, Skyryse, said it was working with major aircraft manufacturers to deploy the technology on everything from helicopters to small jets. Other companies, including the venerable helicopter maker Sikorsky, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, are designing similar technology.

Some manufacturers say they will eventually remove the pilot from the cockpit, completely automating their aircraft while using many of the same techniques that underpin self-driving cars. But self-driving cars are still a long way from everyday reality, and so are self-flying aircraft. Most experts believe automated systems will require oversight from pilots for years to come — perhaps a decade or more.

Skyryse, a 50-person start-up backed by $250 million in funding, spent years developing and testing a system that could fly on its own, using cameras, radar and other sensors to track and respond to an aircraft’s surroundings in flight. Many experts believe this kind of system is easier to perfect than self-driving car technology because there is less traffic and other activity in the skies. But the company has come to realize that regulators are unlikely to approve autonomous flight anytime soon.

Instead, Skyryse and companies like it are pushing toward a compromise. “We can build an autonomous aircraft and fly it,” said Mark Groden, chief executive of Skyryse. “But a human still needs to be the ultimate decision maker.”

Backed by billions of dollars in funding, a number of start-ups are building what are commonly called “flying cars.” Like helicopters, these vehicles can take off and land without a runway. Unlike today’s aircraft, they are completely electric. Many believe these aircraft can provide a quicker, cheaper and greener way of commuting across urban areas.

But this will require far more pilots than the 360,000 flying today. The total could climb to a projected 590,000 over the coming decade as new kinds of aircraft are deployed in U.S. cities, according to a study from McKinsey and Company.

Though some flying-car makers say their aircraft will fly without pilots, most experts believe regulators are unlikely to approve autonomous flight until the end of the decade at the earliest.

“We have a lot of the building blocks needed to automate flight,” said Ian Villa, chief product officer of the electric aircraft company Whisper Aero and former head of strategy for Uber’s electric aircraft project. “The real question is whether you can actually go to market.”

Mr. Groden hopes to fill the gap with FlightOS, a system designed for a wide variety of aircraft, including helicopters, jets and flying cars. This technology, which will cost manufacturers tens of thousands of dollars, will be integrated into multimillion-dollar aircraft.

By adding automation to the operation of these aircraft, Mr. Groden and his company can expand the pool of available pilots. If flying is easier and safer, novices can master the skill much quicker. And if a system like FlightOS is used widely, experienced pilots could quickly master new kinds of aircraft. But even this arrangement has yet to receive approval from regulators and may not for years.

I am not a video game player, much less a pilot. But I learned the basics of the Skyryse system in about 15 minutes while sitting in a hangar at the Camarillo airport. After another 15 minutes, I was strapped into the pilot seat of a sleek black helicopter.

Flying a 2,500-pound helicopter from an iPad was exhilarating, fun and a little nerve-racking. During a 30-minute flight, my biggest problem was the heavy glare of the Southern California sun off the iPad and, at other times, my glasses.

But there was a caveat: As I flew, a licensed pilot sat beside me. He talked me through the flight and generally kept me in check. At one point, I turned east and twisted the joystick with a little too much confidence. He reached over, grabbed the joystick and corrected my attitude.

The new technology required more than 15 minutes of training. Though I could turn and twist and climb, I could not handle the radio communication with air traffic controllers during takeoff and landing, and I needed help setting a course across the valley. Learning those tasks may ultimately be more intimidating and more difficult than flying the aircraft.

“You still need someone with training in communications protocols, what speed and elevation to fly and where the system is unsafe to operate,” said Jessica Rajkowski, head of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems at Mitre, a nonprofit that runs a research and development center for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The helicopter ride was a reminder that artificial intelligence is a work in progress. Even the most advanced technologies — everything from chatbots to robotics — are best used alongside humans, not in lieu of them.

Skyryse hopes to refine its technology in the coming years, further automating the operation of aircraft in ways that will reduce the dependency on air traffic controllers and piloting expertise. The goal is not autonomous flight. Thanks in large part of the enormous regulatory hurdles facing this technology, the goal is making anyone a pilot.

“Today, anyone can drive a car,” said Igor Cherepinsky, director of innovations at Sikorsky. “What if anyone could fly an aircraft?”