A legal battle is brewing between two local companies vying to create flying autonomous air-taxis, with one alleging that the other poached employees, stole trade secrets and copied its aircraft design.
Mountain View-based Wisk Aero LLC filed the suit Tuesday claiming that a similar company next door, Palo Alto-based Archer Aviation, had hired former employees who surreptitiously downloaded thousands of documents laying out Wisk's research, design, testing and fabrication of its aircraft.
Both companies are in an increasingly competitive race to create all-electric, self-flying vehicles capable of ferrying customers over traffic. The industry is seeking to make flights commercially available through designated landing pads, from which the vehicles can vertically lift off.
But where it took Wisk close to eight years before announcing its flagship aircraft, Archer was able to catch up in the span of a year.
Wisk alleges that Archer could not have progressed that quickly with only a fraction of the employees of other competitors, and claims that Archer's aircraft design was alarmingly similar to the Wisk's own patented design. Both have six front rotors, each with five blades that can be tilted horizontally and vertically, along with six rear rotors and an "unconventional" V-shaped tail.
"The striking similarity in these designs could not have been a coincidence," Wisk said in a statement Tuesday.
A spokesperson from Archer said the company intends to defend itself "vigorously" against the allegations, and that the company itself looked into the claims that former Wisk employees had swiped trade secrets and determined the concerns were unfounded.
"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," the Archer spokesperson said in a statement. "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."
Wisk's lawsuit paints a picture in which Archer, a new entrant in the urban air mobility industry, had "raided" the workforces of more experienced competitors through targeted recruitment, hiring away 10 of Wisk's engineers in the span of eight days early last year. The civil complaint, filed in the Northern District of California, describes how Archer co-founders Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein had no prior background in engineering or aviation, and did not appear to have an office location or employees as of December 2019.
Concerned with the exodus of employees, Wisk conducted a forensic investigation and found one of the exiting employees had allegedly downloaded thousands of sensitive files around midnight, shortly before his departure from the company. Another engineer downloaded "numerous" files containing test data, and a third had wiped his computer activity before leaving, the company said.
"Wisk immediately took steps to demand the return of its proprietary and trade secret information," the company said in the lawsuit. "The former Wisk employees, however, claimed ignorance, denied possessing such information, or suggested that such information had been subsequently destroyed."
Things came to a head in February, when Archer released investor materials that included photos and a technical description of its proposed aircraft. Wisk said the design has such a striking similarity that it revealed the "full scope of intellectual property theft" that the company feared. Wisk is seeking a jury trial claiming misappropriation of trade secrets and multiple instances of patent infringement.
To bolster its claims of theft, Wisk notes that the company has numerous competitors -- including Joby, Lilium, Volocopter, and eHang -- that have each ended up with their own unique aircraft designs, with diverse shapes, sizes, wings and rotors. Archer stands out in stark contrast, Wisk said in the lawsuit, by closely mirroring an existing design in the industry.
And while many of these competitors have spent years developing the tech with teams of hundreds of engineers, Archer reportedly had a team of about 35 engineers -- half of whom come from Wisk, according to the complaint.
"Archer's competitors ... typically have spent ten years or more to develop an aircraft to certify, which will be followed by a years-long certification process," according to the lawsuit. "But Archer inexplicably claims it has the ability to design, manufacture, and certify an aircraft by 2024 -- despite not even having any facilities as of December 2019."
In previous interviews, Wisk representatives said the company and the industry at large are still a ways off from providing commercially available flights to the public. There are few places that the autonomous aircrafts would be able to lift off and land, and limits on battery life constrain how far the aircraft can shuttle customers.