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Reliable Robotics achieves milestone for uncrewed cargo flight

Cessna turboprop remotely operated

Brazilian airline Azul is exploring how to incorporate Reliable Robotics’ tech stack in its regional turboprop aircraft. (Photo: Reliable Robotics)

Reliable Robotics, a developer of autonomous flight control systems retrofitted in fixed-wing aircraft, said Wednesday it has successfully completed a remotely piloted flight of a Cessna 208B Caravan commanded from a control center 50 miles away.

The flight, which had no human safety pilot onboard, took place last month. The aircraft took off from Hollister Municipal Airport in California, just south of San Francisco Bay, and was controlled from Reliable’s Mountain View, California, headquarters. The flight took about 12 minutes from autotaxi to parking.

Aviation experts expect that advanced automation will be first adopted at scale in the cargo sector, starting with small freighter aircraft and eventually transitioning to larger aircraft. 

Companies such as Reliable Robotics, Xwing and Merlin are building independent software stacks that can be integrated into Cessna flight control systems to allow regional cargo aircraft to take off, maneuver and land without human involvement. Remote piloting, which is a step toward autonomous flight systems, will allow more communities to benefit from air service, especially with pilots in short supply, they say.

Reliable’s autopilot system automates all phases of flight, from taxi to takeoff and landing. It uses redundant hardware and software to automate flight control surfaces and engine controls, as well as redundant voice and data networks for secure air-to-ground connectivity, which enables remote aircraft command and radio management.

The primary hurdle at this point is getting aviation authorities to validate that autopilot systems are safe and can be safely integrated into the national airspace system. 

The Federal Aviation Administration in June formally accepted Reliable’s certification plan for its autonomous flight system, essentially signing off on the company’s roadmap for complying with safety standards. That was followed by a series of flight tests and simulations that demonstrated Reliable’s ability to reroute the aircraft, immediately change speeds and fly under simulated weather conditions by updating flight plan routing. An onboard test pilot observed each flight. The system was also tested in simulated Class B airspace, typically defined as airspace surrounding the nation’s “busiest” airports.

Proponents of semi-autonomous flight systems say they can prevent controlled flight into terrain and loss of control in flight, making them safer than aircraft with crews.

ASL Aviation Holdings, a provider of outsourced cargo transport outside North America for global express carriers such as Amazon, FedEx and DHL, has been working with Reliable Robotics since last year to explore bringing advanced aircraft automation into its operations. 

“ASL is always innovating to better serve customers, and our partnership with Reliable Robotics is aimed at enabling us to provide reliable, flexible and cost-efficient time-sensitive cargo delivery to smaller unserved areas,” said CEO Dave Andrew in a news release.

In June, Reliable Robotics announced an agreement with Azul Airlines to determine how to deploy Reliable’s advanced automation system into Caravan operations in Brazil.

Reliable Robotics is also collaborating with the U.S. Air Force to explore how remote piloting can be applied to large cargo aircraft. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]