Electric takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOL), or air taxis, flew from the realm of science fiction to the real world in the space of a few short months, touted by airlines, more focused on sustainability than ever, as a greener way to connect city centers and remote regional airports with the air transport system at major hub airports. In a less welcome sign of reality’s intrusion, two of the largest players in the space shortly could be embroiled in a contentious lawsuit over intellectual property theft.
Mountain View, Calif.-based Wisk Aero, which is working on the sixth generation of its eVTOL, filed a suit in the federal district court for the Northern District of California alleging that Palo Alto, Calif.-based Archer Aviation stole its intellectual property for its own eVTOL prototype. Specifically, Wisk alleges that Archer’s prototype is a copy of a design Wisk submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office January 2020.
Wisk said it has been working on its prototype for more than 10 years and was immediately suspicious when Archer unveiled its plans. “Just a year ago, Archer appeared to have little or no meaningful operations, let alone the years of research, development, and testing required to fly even a prototype of an eVTOL aircraft,” Wisk said in a blog post explaining its lawsuit. “We have discovered significant and troubling evidence indicating that Archer has been using Wisk’s proprietary intellectual property without our permission.”
Wisk said it suspects one of its former employees downloaded thousands of confidential files “near midnight” before joining Archer, which hired 10 Wisk engineers. “Another engineer downloaded numerous files containing test data just before departing for Archer.” Wisk alleges, adding that it hired a forensic search firm to investigate the issue. “Yet another wiped any trace of his computer activities shortly before leaving for Archer.”
Archer dismissed Wisk’s allegations as baseless. “It’s regrettable that Wisk would engage in litigation in an attempt to deflect from the business issues that have caused several of its employees to depart,” an Archer spokesperson said. “The plaintiff raised these matters over a year ago, and after looking into them thoroughly, we have no reason to believe any proprietary Wisk technology ever made its way to Archer.”
Archer said it has placed on employee on administrative leave while the investigation continues, and three other employees have been subpoenaed. The company is cooperating with authorities, the spokesperson said.
The two companies have some pretty serious backers. Boeing and Kitty Hawk have invested in Wisk. The New Zealand government is working with Wisk on a prototype air taxi.
Archer with great fanfare recently signed an agreement with United Airlines for up to 200 of its eVTOLs. United declined to comment on the lawsuit.