Almost a year ago, a Cessna 172 Skyhawk secretly made aviation history when it landed at a small airport in Northern California, completing the first successful remote-controlled flight of a passenger aircraft in the United States.
The company behind this milestone in commercial aviation history is Reliable Robotics, a startup founded in 2017 by former SpaceX and Tesla engineers who previously put the autopilot into the car driveways of electric vehicles and the Dragon rocket into the Have risen high.
The company has raised $ 33.5 million in venture funding from investors such as Lightspeed Venture Partners and Eclipse Ventures, Pathbreaker Ventures and Teamworthy Ventures and is now targeting prospective clients in the logistics and shipping industries.
Robert Rose, co-founder of Reliable Robotics, comes from a family of flyers. Both grandfathers flew in World War II and had worked as pilots themselves. In fact, the company's origins stem from Rose's attempts to get back into the cockpit and behind the yoke.
"Flying is hard," said Rose. "It takes a lot of cognitive skills."
Many of these cognitive skills are tasks that Rose knew could be automated from his experience developing Tesla's autopilot system and flight systems for the Falcon and Dragon starship. Juerg Frefel, the company's co-founder, vice president of engineering and former head of the team behind the computer platform for the Falcon 9 and Dragon starships, helps Rose automate these tasks.
Reliable's systems are not fully automated, there is still a pilot behind the scenes, but that pilot oversees systems and controls the aircraft remotely instead of sitting in the cockpit.
Reliable began its experiments in retrofitting existing aircraft with autonomous systems in the same way that Tesla began its journey into manufacturing, using existing aircraft frames rather than designing their own.
“We spent the first part of our flight test program with the C172. We thoroughly tested every aspect of our system in the simulation and performed rigorous safety checks before operating the aircraft without a pilot on board. Now we're proud to share what we've been working on, "Rose said in a statement.
The company started with the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, but switched to the larger Cessna 208 Caravan. The caravan, which is designed as a passenger aircraft, is also used for shipping by logistics companies such as FedEx. In June, the company demonstrated a completely remote landing of the caravan via the San Jose approach route – a particularly busy route.
"There has never been a privately funded program that has ever done anything like this," said Rose.
Enabling remote control and automating certain aspects of the flight offers tremendous potential for reducing costs and increasing efficiency in an industry faced with multiple pressures.
"Automated aircraft will fundamentally change the entire airline business and Reliable Robotics is well positioned to be a major player in this emerging market," said David Neeleman, founder of several commercial airlines including JetBlue (and investor in Reliable Robotics). .
The company's autonomous platform can be applied to any fixed-wing aircraft, but the Reliable co-founder and CEO doesn't expect to sell components. Instead, Reliable Robotics will retrofit aircraft and operate them as a service to its customers, Rose said.
"First of all, we must necessarily do this as a service," said Rose. “The certification of air systems. If you want to operate in the air, you need to have your maintenance plan, your procedures … the entire organization needs to be FAA certified … The first time someone operates an aircraft without a pilot on board, the entire company must be certified. At least in the first few years, we see this as a service. "
According to Rose, Reliable made its first upgrade and flight on a FedEx Cessna caravan, which operates around 235 aircraft in its fleet. Several other shipping companies also use the caravan for air logistics.
"There's a communications component, a ground network, and a control center to run the thing. It's a fully vertically integrated business," said Rose. "Integrated hardware that we use to control flight systems and telemetry and data (and that is) into a custom one Integrate computers that can process this and fly the aircraft, and integrate them into a ground network so that a pilot in our control center can oversee the operation of the aircraft. "
Rose said pitching for customers increases pilot utilization. "How could economics change if (pilots) could teleport from one aircraft to the next after flying? "Said Rose."With our system you can use the pilot more efficiently and the aircraft more efficiently. "