The road to using commercial aircraft that can handle all aspects of flight without a pilot is long, winding, expensive and fraught with regulatory and technical hurdles. Marc Piette, the founder of the autonomous aviation startup Xwing, would like to make this path to pilotless flight shorter and cheaper.
Rather than building autonomous helicopters and airplanes from scratch, Xwing focuses on the software stack that enables pilotless flight of existing airplanes. Now, a few months after raising $ 10 million in new funding and successful autonomous test flights in a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, the company is sharing details of its go-to-market strategy. Xwing said it had completed more than 70 hours of engine time for ground and flight tests and more than 40 hours of automated flight time since July.
The Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, a utility aircraft that has historically been used for cargo, flight training and humanitarian missions, will be the first centerpiece of their commercial cargo flight plan. It is planned to have a regional focus and operate within a range of 500 miles with flight paths over uninhabited areas.
Xwing will operate the fleet. However, Piette said the company is also open to partnering and licensing the technology to other operators.
The so-called autoflight system from Xwing is aircraft-independent. And it's still like that, said Piette in a recent telephone interview. The Cessna 208B Grand Caravan is just the beginning.
"It's still in production, it's a safe aircraft and it's a good platform for us to switch to an unmanned aircraft here," said Piette.
Piette believes that retrofitting existing aircraft with the Autoflight system will accelerate deployment while ensuring safety and keeping costs under control. The autoflight system is integrated into integrated flight control systems that allow the aircraft to navigate, take off and land autonomously. According to Xwing, the system will be monitored by remote operators who work with air traffic controllers.
Before Xwing can go into commercial operation, it must be approved by the authorities.
Xwing holds the required Part 135 Air Carrier Certificate, which is required to start its trading business and which was acquired when acquiring a business for commuting. Xwing is now updating the certificate for freight operations and the 208B Cessna caravans. Xwing continues to require the FAA to provide flight certification for unmanned Cessna 208B Grand Caravan aircraft with a cargo capacity of over 4,000 pounds. Xwing works with the FAA and has been involved in NASA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS in NAS) program for more than a year, an initiative designed to mature the key remaining technologies necessary for unmanned aircraft integration in the U.S. Airspace are required.
"I will not minimize the challenge here, as this is fairly new for the regulatory authority and is also of a complex nature from a safety perspective," said Piette. "I would like to be able to unmanned these commercial cargo operations in the US in the early period of 2022. We have to see if we can do that."