Launched by SpaceX and Tesla veterans, Reliable Robotics has made great strides in the development of unmanned aircraft technology. Recently, the company revealed some of its milestones in pioneering unmanned aviation.
Based in California, Reliable Robotics was founded in 2017 by Robert Rose and Juerg Frefel. Robert Rose, who previously led development teams at Tesla, SpaceX and Google’s X, has considerable experience in engineering systems for robotics, self-driving vehicles and the aerospace industry. Co-founder Juerg Frefel, developed systems for the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft at SpaceX.
With a staff complement of about thirty people, the Reliable Robotics team began modifying a Cessna 172 in December 2017. Before the end of the next year, the 172 completed its first fully automated gate-to-gate remotely operated flight. Then, in September 2019, the aircraft completed another automated flight, this time without any test pilots onboard. It was the first time a privately funded company operated a passenger aircraft of this type with no pilot on board over a populated region. “We spent the first portion of our flight test programme focused on the C172. We thoroughly tested every aspect of our system in simulation and conducted rigorous safety checks before operating the aircraft without a pilot on board and are now proud to share what we’ve been working on,” said Robert Rose in a company press release.
According to the release, the Cessna 172 was equipped with a “proprietary autonomous platform that can be applied to any fixed-wing aircraft. The platform includes avionics, software, mechanisms, a communications system, remote control interfaces, along with a backup system that has the capability to take over if needed. Following the C172 programme, it was adapted for use on the larger Cessna 208.”
As it happened, the first automated Cessna 208 test flight took place in June this year, with a fully automated landing taking place soon thereafter. To find out more about the technology in these aircraft, Aviation News Journal spoke with Robert Rose.
According to Rose, “People have been flying autonomous aircraft for some time, the military has been doing this for a while, but I think what makes our demonstration unique, is we are not a military funded programme. This is private money.
“We also got approval to fly over a populated area. I don’t believe that’s ever been done before through a completely privately funded programme. But more importantly, we set out from day one with certification in mind.” He mentioned that many of the components the company has developed are certifiable. “We are now working with the faa (Federal Aviation Administration) on getting this approved for use in a civilian and commercial capacity,” he added.
Do these aircraft fly with the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning? Not quite. In the words of Rose, “There is artificial intelligence in the sense that it is an intelligent system, but it is not AI in the deep learning sense by any stretch. There is no regulatory basis for flying machine learning or deep learning systems in airplanes yet. We wanted to focus on what can be done right now.”
This does not mean Reliable Robotics makes use of a regular autopilot system. “I wish we could have bought an off-the-shelf autopilot,” said Rose. “The fact is nobody makes an autopilot that can handle all phases of flight: taxi, take-off and landing,” he added. “The other problem is that they don’t handle failures gracefully… If you’re going to automate the entire aircraft, and you’re not going to have a pilot in there, then you need something that can not only detect failures, but also respond to them immediately. So, we set out to go built it. A lot of the methodologies and principles that we’re following echo what we developed at SpaceX.”
In terms of equipment, what exactly does it take to automate a small cargo aircraft, such as a Cessna 208? “We have developed custom computers, software, mechanisms, communication systems, ground control centres, back end data network for transferring all of the data between the aircraft and the control centre…” Rose mentioned that “actuators are another thing that we have spent a great deal of time developing. You can’t buy actuators of the shelf that are suitable for automating the aircraft to this degree.”
Looking at the rate at which Reliable Robotics has achieved its milestones, it is impressive how quickly the team has made progress. “This is really a testament to the simulation capability that we have developed,” remarked Rose. “We felt from the beginning that it was of crucial importance that we build a simulation capability for our aircraft that the world has never seen before!” The team was able to model flight dynamics with great accuracy, with the result that systems worked remarkable well during actual test flights, saving a significant amount of time.
For further information, as well as more recent news on the development of autonomous cargo flights, please visit www.reliable.co
Propellers have been used on aircraft for almost 115 years and have evolved to become more efficient and reliable, but do we really understand the tremendous forces and corrosion to which propellers are exposed? How frequently should an aircraft propeller be overhauled? Is the process absolutely necessary? What happens during an overhaul? To find answers to these questions, we paid a visit to Aero Propeller of Calgary.
Located near Calgary International Airport in Alberta, Aero Propeller of Calgary was founded in 1979. Two of its owners, Gord Thompson and Nash Javer, have been with the company since it first opened its doors nearly forty years ago. In 2008, they were joined by Kevin Samuel, an experienced aircraft maintenance engineer and structural technician. Combined, they have more than a century of experience in propeller maintenance. Most of the propellers that enter their workshop belong to general aviation and light commercial aircraft, but the team occasionally works on more interesting examples, such as that of a Hawker Hurricane and Douglas DC-6. When it comes to propeller maintenance, these men have seen it all and were happy to talk about overhauls in the context of aviation safety.
When determining the when a propeller, or related components, need to be overhauled, flight time or calendar dates are not the only factors one should consider. It is important to take operating conditions and the environment into consideration.
That said, what does an overhaul entail? The first step is to mount the propeller and visually inspect it. The paint is removed and blades are examined to see if they had been damaged in any way, and to measure dimensions to determine whether they can be overhauled. Once the propeller has been taken apart, the basic components are cleaned and degreased. The next step is to repair the damage and ensure that the components are within the manufacturer’s dimensional limits. All major components are then sent to a certified workshop for non-destructive inspection. Next, components are polished and dipped in a solution for corrosion protection, before being painted and receiving a durable polyurethane coating. Finally, the propeller is reassembled and set according to the manufacturer’s overhaul manual.
Internal corrosion is extremely dangerous and can only be detected when all the components have been taken a part and cleaned in a workshop. The importance of propeller inspections and overhauls cannot be overstated. When experiencing an engine failure, for the most part, the aircraft can glide and complete a safe forced landing. If, on the other hand, a propeller blade separates, the remainder of the flight can be considerably more eventful, if not catastrophic.
For further information on propeller maintenance, or advice regarding purchasing or owning a propeller, please contact Aero Propeller of Calgary at 403-291-9400.
Information on how frequently propellers need to be overhauled can be found on Transport Canada’s website, www.tc.gc.ca, in the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) section.
Analyzing or monitoring flight data is not a new concept, but it is surprising just how many misconceptions and myths there are regarding this remarkably important tool, especially now that modern technology has made it more accessible to smaller aircraft operators.
What exactly is Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) and how does it benefit operators? To find out, we contacted Dion Bozec of Scaled Analytics, based in Ottawa, on, who is passionate about developing modern FDM programmes.
In a nutshell, FDM, also commonly known as Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) or Flight Data Analysis (FDA), is a programme in which flight data is recorded and analyzed, with the goal of improving operating procedures and safety. With the right FDM system in place, operators benefit from increased operational efficiency and profitability.
According to Bozec, one of the biggest myths or assumptions is that FDM is a punitive programme, intended to evaluate pilots. Instead, FDM programmes are designed to look at trends, rather than individual performance, benefiting the entire company, including its pilots.
Many operators also erroneously believe that FDM is expensive, difficult to implement and only useful for airlines. In the past, FDM or FOQA systems were complex, requiring expensive hardware, highly specialized software and a host of engineers and it experts to manage the programme. Thankfully, technology has progressed to the point where this is no longer the case. Today, FDM is accessible and beneficial to any operator, regardless of the size of its fleet, even if it has only one light aircraft or helicopter.
FDM was originally developed to enhance safety and it continues to serve as a valuable component of safety management systems, but there is considerably more to the story than that. “A programme that involves reviewing flight data can benefit many departments within an organization, besides the safety department,” said Bozec. “An FDM programme can be extended to improving operational efficiency, monitoring maintenance events, monitoring or improving fuel efficiency, improving training programmes and reducing maintenance trouble shooting times, among other uses.”
As an example, with the use of FDM, an operator with only one aircraft in its fleet was able to detect a recurring problem with unstable approaches. A trend was discovered, measures were put in place and the number of unstable approaches was dramatically reduced.
Another operator had occasional overtemp problems with a turboprop engine on one of its aircraft. Each time an overtemp was indicated, the aircraft was grounded and its flight data recorder sent to the recorder’s manufacturer, which would download the data file and send it to the operator. On each occasion, the process would take five days, before the decision on whether the aircraft could fly was made. Now, with more modern techniques, retrieving the same information would take mere minutes, dramatically reducing the aircraft’s time on the ground.
Understanding the process
How exactly does FDM work? The first step is to record flight data. Most transport aircraft and helicopters have crash resistant Flight Data Recorders (FDR), called ‘black boxes’ by the media. These data recorders serve as hard drives, storing all the information sent to it by the aircraft’s Flight Data Acquisition Unit (FDAU).
Data can be recovered with a download unit and used for FDM, but there are disadvantages to using an FDR for this purpose. FDRs are only required to record 25 hours of data, download units are expensive and, depending on the aircraft, it might be difficult to access.
As a result, it might make more sense to use a Quick Access Recorder (QAR). This device is effectively a flight data recorder that is not crash survivable. Compared with an FDR, a QAR is small, light, easily accessible, more affordable and able to record more than 400 hours of information.
That said, these data recorders may not even be necessary. If the aircraft has modern avionics, such as the Garmin G1000, data can simply be saved on a memory card and used as part of an FDM programme. This can be particularly useful to smaller commercial operators or flying schools, as glass cockpits have become increasingly popular in even light general aviation aircraft.
Once the data has been downloaded, it needs to be processed by specialized software, which converts raw binary data into meaningful information. The software also looks for ‘events’ or situations where predefined limits were exceeded.
The resulting statistics and ‘events’ are then reviewed by a flight data analyst, who is able to identify unsafe or inefficient trends in flight operations. These steps can be accomplished with the help of a service provider. This would be particularly useful to smaller operators, which would otherwise need to employ a data analyst.
Once the information has been reviewed and examined, an analyst presents it to the operator’s decisionmakers in the form of charts or flight animations. Actionable, informed decisions can then be made to improve safety, efficiency and profitability. By continuously monitoring flight data, the impact and value of those decisions can be measured as the organization keeps working toward perfection.
In recent years, the cost of technology has become more affordable, creating real opportunities for smaller operators to benefit from FDM. With solutions provided by the likes of Scaled Analytics, decisionmakers and maintenance engineers are now able to access vital flight data and statistics online from anywhere in the world, quicker than ever.
For further information on how to benefit from the latest technology in Flight Data Monitoring, visit www.scaledanalytics.com