In February, Reliable Robotics completed a series of remotely operated test flights directed by a pilot stationed in its Mountain View headquarters over fifty miles away. The remote pilot in the control center instructed an upgraded Cessna 208 Caravan to taxi, takeoff, maneuver over a populated region, and land while communicating with nearby air traffic through the aircraft’s onboard radios. The company, a leader in autonomous aircraft system development, aims to be the first to bring automated air transportation to the cargo market. The flights mark a significant advancement for remotely piloted commercial aircraft in the United States.
“Automating a large aircraft with remote piloting infrastructure is an impressive technical achievement for commercial aviation, coming years before many in the industry expected,” said Charles Graham, former CEO for Aviation, DHL Express. “Operating from a control center increases safety margins, reduces workload and enables pilots to focus on communications and complex decision making.”
Reliable Robotics debuted its advanced autoflight system on a Cessna 172 in 2019. This recent exhibition underscores the flexibility in their approach to autonomy by fully integrating the same system with the larger Cessna Caravan. The test flights serve to advance the company’s main objective of certifying its system for use on any aircraft.
Remote Piloting Infrastructure
Early test flights are conducted by a remote pilot seated in the new control center, while an onboard safety pilot concurrently monitors flight performance. Data and experience gathered during each flight informs future engineering decisions, supports operational design within the workspace, and helps test and improve onboard control systems. With regulatory oversight and experimental approval to fly remotely piloted aircraft, the company plans incremental certification with gradually increasing autonomy.
Signaling the importance of trained pilots in their automation solution as well as the security implications associated with remotely operated aircraft, leadership from the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon 2 programs joined the team to develop the system’s human interface and cybersecurity framework. By leveraging existing training programs, pilots with established credentials and experience can transition into remote operation roles using knowledge and skills they already have.
Unlike today’s commercial autopilots, Reliable Robotics envisioned and built a system capable of remote operation from a control center staffed with professional pilots:
“Routine flight testing from our control center is essential for validating our design and developing human factors guidelines for commercial remote piloting,” said Casey Klebba, Director of Remote Piloting at Reliable Robotics. “Equally important is our work to support and advance the certification basis for autonomous aircraft systems so they can be operated at scale.”
Dynamic Air Transportation Systems
In recent years, the aviation industry has moved to the forefront of commercial autonomous vehicle development. Governed by strict regulations, the anticipated integration of remotely piloted planes promises greater efficiencies related to time, cost and access. Once certified for commercial use, advanced aircraft automation will allow operators to meet rising cargo demands and eventually offer more convenient flight options for passengers.
By expanding the use of small regional airports in underserved markets, major carriers will be able to open new routes and improve delivery speeds. Without reliance on local crew availability, flight turnarounds will be faster. Pilots will no longer be limited to flying specific types of aircraft, the same routes or only one to two flights a day. Geographically distributed control centers will enable constant operation across time zones, giving remote operators the ability to fly more frequently than traditional airlines.
“The demonstration from our control center highlights how our system incorporates the best of both — advanced automation and people — to improve aircraft operations,” said Robert Rose, Co-founder and CEO of Reliable Robotics. “When this technology becomes commonplace, we’re going to see a far safer and more productive National Airspace System for all participants.”
To bring remotely piloted aircraft to the market as soon as possible, Reliable Robotics plans to more than double in size over the next year. The company has already assembled a team of industry experts and continues to search for top engineering talent by embracing remote hiring and distributed collaboration. Their accomplishments were recently selected as a finalist for the 2020 Collier Trophy award for the greatest achievements in aeronautics or astronautics in the United States. Ambitious experimental and certification flight tests in 2021 include flying between airports and remote operation across state lines.
SAKOR Technologies Inc., known for its high-performance dynamometer systems, announced that it recently provided a dynamometer test system to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. for use in testing starters/alternators for military remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) of the Predator class and larger. The system features a 58 horsepower AccuDyne AC 4 quadrant motoring dynamometer and other subsystems configured for starter/generator testing and is automated by SAKOR’s DynoLAB test automation controller.
The SAKOR test system will be used by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems for testing the motor that starts the RPA turbines. Once under turbine power, this motor then turns into a generator that produces electricity for flight controls and sensor suite onboard the RPA.
The AccuDyne four-quadrant dynamometer is capable of full bi-directional braking or driving the device under test. It can also provide full rated torque at stall (zero RPM). The dynamometer has been configured with 58 Hp bi-directional motoring and absorbing; line-regenerative power absorption; and a maximum speed of 12,600 rpm. The system is equipped with a heavy-duty test bench; vertical rack enclosure; and a four-phase power analyzer configured to measure the DC input and three-phase AC voltage, current and power output from the DUT motor controller (inverter). SAKOR also provided on-site installation supervision, commissioning, and training services.
The system is automated by SAKOR’s DynoLAB test automation controller, a powerful system that enables test engineers and/or technicians to design and implement complex test procedures without the need to learn a programming language. Operators can quickly configure and run tests using the easy to use, menu driven interface.
“We are proud to be involved with the effort to provide our military with the most advanced equipment in the world,” said Randal Beattie, president of SAKOR. “RPAs are at the forefront of modern technology and this test equipment will help ensure it remains state of the art far into the future.”
Reliable Robotics Makes Aviation History with First Flights of Autonomous Passenger Airplanes Over Populated RegionsRead Now
Reliable Robotics, a leader in bringing autonomous capability to airplanes, today announced that they have achieved historic firsts for global commercial aviation by completing successful test flights of remote-piloted passenger airplanes in United States airspace. In the first flight, the pilot pressed a button on a remote user interface and the unmanned four passenger Cessna 172 Skyhawk (C172) automatically taxied, took off, and landed. Most recently, the company demonstrated fully automated remote landing of an even larger aircraft, the Cessna 208 Caravan (C208), capable of carrying 14 passengers.
“Automated aircraft are going to fundamentally shift the entire airline business, and Reliable Robotics is well positioned to be a key player in this new market. The progress their team has demonstrated in a short amount of time is very impressive,” said David Neeleman, Founder of five commercial airlines including JetBlue Airways.
Reliable Robotics seamlessly integrated its autonomous platform onto the 2,550 pound C172. They began the C172 program in January 2018 and completed fully automated gate-to-gate operation before the end of that year. Extensive system safety analysis and testing was conducted prior to the unmanned test flight in September 2019. This marked the first time a privately funded company operated a passenger airplane of this type with no pilot on board over a populated region, and was an important step in certifying the autonomous platform for repeated, safe civil use on certified aircraft.
“We spent the first portion of our flight test program 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, Co-founder and CEO of Reliable Robotics. “By bringing advanced automation to aviation, we will deliver higher safety, reliability and convenience for cargo operators and eventually for passengers.”
The company designed and built 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 program, it was adapted for use on the larger C208. Reliable Robotics is now working with the FAA on incrementally bringing this technology to market, having already demonstrated automated landing on the C208 last month.
“Reliable Robotics has assembled a proven team with deep experience across aviation, aerospace, self driving cars, medical devices and robotics. I’m excited to see them achieve milestones methodically while prioritizing safety, and navigating a complex regulatory environment,” said Eclipse Ventures Partner Greg Reichow, formerly VP of Manufacturing at Tesla, Inc.
Reliable Robotics was founded in 2017 by engineers who believe aircraft should fly themselves. The leadership team includes Co-founder and CEO Robert Rose who led flight software at SpaceX and the Autopilot program at Tesla, launching the Falcon 9 rocket, Dragon spacecraft and the first consumer automobile with fully unassisted self-driving capability. Co-founder and VP of Engineering Juerg Frefel led the team developing the compute platform for the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft. Other senior members of the team have played key roles in the development of the Boeing 787, Airbus A380 and other major commercial aircraft and avionics systems.
The company has raised $33.5 million in two rounds of funding led by Lightspeed Ventures and Eclipse Ventures respectively; Pathbreaker Ventures, and Teamworthy Ventures also participated. The funding is being used to build components of the remote hardware and software needed to retrofit aircraft and to continue hiring top aerospace and engineering talent.
Boeing has introduced its newest unmanned platform, the Boeing Airpower Teaming System. Designed for global defense customers by Boeing Australia, it is the company’s largest investment in a new unmanned aircraft program outside the United States. The aircraft will complement and extend airborne missions through smart teaming with existing military aircraft.
A model of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System was unveiled at the Australian International Airshow by the Australian Minister for Defence, the Hon. Christopher Pyne MP. As a research and development activity, the Australian Government and Boeing will produce a concept demonstrator called the Loyal Wingman – Advanced Development Program that will provide key learnings toward the production of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System.
“The Boeing Airpower Teaming System will provide a disruptive advantage for allied forces’ manned/unmanned missions,” said Kristin Robertson, vice president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems. “With its ability to reconfigure quickly and perform different types of missions in tandem with other aircraft, our newest addition to Boeing’s portfolio will truly be a force multiplier as it protects and projects air power.”
The Boeing Airpower Teaming System will:
-- Provide fighter-like performance, measuring 11.7 metres long and able to fly more than 2,000 nautical miles
-- Integrate sensor packages onboard to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions and electronic warfare
-- Use artificial intelligence to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft.
“This aircraft is a historic endeavor for Boeing. Not only is it developed outside the United States, it is also designed so that our global customers can integrate local content to meet their country-specific requirements,” said Marc Allen, president, Boeing International. “The Boeing Airpower Teaming System provides a transformational capability in terms of defense, and our customers – led by Australia – effectively become partners on the program with the ability to grow their own sovereign capabilities to support it, including a high-tech workforce.”
The aircraft’s first flight is planned for 2020.
Boeing will build the U.S. Navy’s first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft, the MQ-25 aerial refueller, through an $805 million contract awarded on August 30.
Boeing was awarded the engineering and manufacturing development contract to provide four aircraft. The company plans to perform the MQ-25 work in St. Louis.
“As a company, we have made an investment in both our team and in an unmanned aircraft system that meets the U.S. Navy’s refueling requirements,” said Leanne Caret, president and CEO, Boeing Defense, Space & Security. “The fact that we’re already preparing for first flight is thanks to an outstanding team who understands the Navy and their need to have this important asset on carrier decks around the world.”
MQ-25 is designed to provide the U.S. Navy with a much-needed refueling capability. According to the U.S. Navy, the MQ-25 Stingray will allow for better use of combat strike fighters by extending the range of deployed Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Boeing EA-18G Growler, and Lockheed Martin F-35C aircraft. MQ-25 will also seamlessly integrate with a carrier’s catapult and launch and recovery systems.
Boeing has been providing carrier aircraft to the U.S. Navy for more than 90 years.