Wisk Aero, a joint venture between Boeing and Kitty Hawk, is suing rival air taxi firm Archer Aviation for allegedly stealing its trade secrets and infringing on its patents. Wisk is seeking unspecified monetary damages and an injunction against Archer to prevent it from using the allegedly stolen technology.
In a complaint filed in the US District Court of Northern California, Wisk said it is suing Archer “to stop a brazen theft of its intellectual property and confidential information, and protect the substantial investment of resources and years of hard work and effort of its employees and their vision of the future in urban air transportation.”
Santa Clara-based Archer came out of stealth in the spring of 2020 after having poached key talent from Kitty Hawk, the flying taxi company bankrolled by Google co-founder Larry Page and run by Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford AI and robotics whiz who launched Google’s self-driving car unit. The company also hired engineers away from Airbus’ Vahana project. According to Avionics International, Archer was able to lure these engineers by offering higher salaries.
Archer was founded by Adam Goldstein and Brett Adcock, co-founders of Vettery, a marketing software-as-a-service company, which the two sold to Switzerland-based staffing firm Adecco Group in 2018 for $100 million. But Wisk argues that Archer didn’t just steal talent — it also stole trade secrets. Wisk accuses Archer of misappropriating “thousands of highly confidential files containing very valuable trade secrets, as well as the use of significant innovations Wisk has patented.”
Archer’s emergence “surprised the industry,” Wisk claims, based on its shortened time frame for going to market with its electric aircraft with just a fraction of the staff of other, more established urban air mobility firms. According to Wisk:
Archer’s stated timeline for releasing an aircraft was a fraction of the time taken by its serious competitors, using a fraction of the number of employees of those competitors. The development of an entirely new kind of passenger aircraft requires years of engineering and significant expertise to get right, as demonstrated by Wisk and the other leading players in this space. For example, after 10 years of hard engineering and testing, Wisk is currently developing its sixth-generation aircraft, which it plans to certify with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). We believe it is virtually impossible for Archer to have produced an originally-designed aircraft in this timeframe that has gone through the necessary testing and is ready for certification with the FAA.
Most surprising to Wisk was the design of Archer’s prototype aircraft — mainly because it closely resembled Wisk’s own prototype. Both aircraft feature six front rotors, each with five blades, that can tilt either horizontally or vertically, as well as six rear rotors that each consist of two blades and remain fixed in a vertical position. Archer’s aircraft also includes an “unconventional” V-shaped tail, similar to Wisk’s patented design.
“The striking similarity in these designs could not have been a coincidence,” Wisk says. The month that Wisk filed its patent application was the same month that Archer hired away 10 of Wisk’s engineers, the company says.
With its suspicions raised, Wisk said it hired a forensic investigator, who returned with some “troubling” information:
We discovered that one of those engineers downloaded thousands of Wisk files near midnight, shortly before he announced his resignation and immediately departed to Archer. Those files contain our valuable trade secrets and confidential information about Wisk’s aircraft development spanning the history of the company, accumulated over countless hours of incremental progress by scores of engineers. Another engineer downloaded numerous files containing test data just before departing for Archer. Yet another wiped any trace of his computer activities shortly before leaving for Archer.
Wisk also points out that among its competitors, no two prototypes look the same, which makes Archer’s alleged theft of its trade secrets stand out even more.
A spokesperson for Archer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Archer has recently made news by raising $1.1 billion by going public through a reverse merger with a special acquisition company, or SPAC. The merger, which is valued at $3.8 billion, is also backed by Stellantis, the parent company of Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot, and United Airlines. United has placed a $1 billion order for 200 Archer electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, with an option to purchase 100 more for $500 million.
In an interview with The Verge last month, the startup’s co-founders gave a lot of credit to Page’s Kitty Hawk and Wisk for helping launch the eVTOL industry, while also acknowledging having poached many of the key players from Wisk to help start Archer.
“We started the business three or four years ago. And our team here is a team that basically kind of started the space,” Adcock told The Verge. “So Larry Page basically invented the space in a large way. In 2010, he started a company that’s now called Wisk. It used to be called Kitty Hawk, and then Zero, but it’s called Wisk now. That was like the big, big group in the space.”
Adcock continued to heap praise on Page, saying, “You know, Larry’s spent a considerable amount of money and time over 10 years basically maturing the technologies, like motors, batteries, flight control, software, aircraft design, these type of things.”
But that didn’t prevent him from hiring away many of the key players at Wisk and Airbus’ Vahana, including Tom Muniz, who ran engineering at Wisk and is now chief operating officer at Archer; and Geoffrey Bower, who was chief engineer at Vahana and now holds that same title at Archer. “We’ve basically been bringing over kind of the best folks in the world here to kind of tackle this problem last several years,” he added.
Air taxis, sometimes misidentified as “flying cars, “are essentially helicopters without the noisy, polluting gas motors. A number of startups have emerged in recent years with prototype aircraft that are electric-powered, able to carry a handful of passengers, and intended for short flights within a city or regionally. Analysts predict that the flying taxi market could grow to $150 billion in revenue by 2035.