Tech: A startup is retrofitting helicopters to fly first responders to emergency scenes instead of sending ambulances

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SkyRyse uses helicopters to transport first responders to emergency scenes. The startup ran a two-week pilot this summer in Tracy, California, and it will begin full-time service in the city in January.

  • SkyRyse uses helicopters to transport first responders to emergency scenes.
  • The startup ran a two-week pilot this summer in Tracy, California, and it will begin a full-time contract with the city in January.
  • CEO Mark Groden told Business Insider that he wants SkyRyse to begin offering air taxi services soon.
  • SkyRyse's helicopters are retrofitted with new technology to gather data on how the aircraft could operate without a pilot.

A startup called SkyRyse has joined the autonomous aircraft movement, though it's taking a much different path than its competitors.

While Uber, Airbus, and Larry Page's Kitty Hawk are working on building autonomous aircraft, SkyRyse is using existing helicopters and flying first responders to emergency scenes. Over a two-week period in August, SkyRyse pilots flew paramedics and police officers to the sites of 50 911 calls in Tracy, California.

"We started in first response because we see this as the most acute need for getting places quickly and safely," SkyRyse CEO Mark Groden told Business Insider.

Groden, who co-founded SkyRyse in 2016, said he wants to develop autonomous flying air taxis to offer new ways for traveling safely and quickly.

The startup tried two different methods in Tracy: One entails waiting to take off the ground until a 911 call comes in. Instead of running to a squad car or fire engine, emergency responders get on the aircraft and take off. The other method relies on continuous flight, or flying above parts of the city until help is needed, Groden said. The responders bring life-saving items like defibrillators and drugs onboard with them in both cases.


According to SkyRyse's website, first responders flying on the company's aircraft can get to an emergency scene in an average of four minutes, which is much faster than the previous 13.5 minute average in Tracy. Groden said there are pros and cons to both of the methods tested, and the startup will work closely with the city to determine which option to implement. Tracy has purchased a subscription service with SkyRyse, which will begin flying first responders in the city on a regular basis in January.

Groden said SkyRyse had a smooth start to the August beta program and even worked with the FBI when a group of undercover agents leveraged the startup's services to go from Tracy to a mission.

"We were part of the official FBI documentation for this particular mission, which was actually extremely successful in large part because [of] the data that we were able to collect for them," Groden said.

Pilots still operate SkyRyse aircraft, which collect a significant amount of data — about a terabyte every few hours — using 360-degree camera views around the aircraft, radar sensors, and audio recordings. The startup plans on using this data to gain a better understanding of what it would take to remove the pilot from the aircraft.

Groden said he was surprised to learn that one aircraft was enough to respond to the 50 911 calls that were recorded in Tracy during the two-week period in August. SkyRyse helicopters can land anywhere and do not require a helipad, he said, adding that Tracy residents' response has been generally positive.

It is harder to imagine this going over as well in a more dense urban setting, where residents might be unsettled by a helicopter landing right next to their apartment window. Tracy's population is roughly 89,000 people.

In the future, SkyRyse also aims to tackle autonomous flight. The startup relies on a commonly-used Robinson R44 helicopter, whereas competitors like Uber and Kitty Hawk are building new aircraft. Groden said this distinction allows SkyRyse to focus on creating retrofitting technology for Robinson helicopters, ultimately eliminating the need for pilots.

SkyRyse will continue offering emergency services to first responders even when it launches air taxi services, Groden said.

"I can say very confidently that very, very soon, sooner than people expect, we will be launching air taxis," he said.

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