California's Reliable Robotics is celebrating successful autonomous flights with two Cessna aircraft – including a popular cargo plane – in the latest milestone for self-flying planes.
Flight testing first began in 2018 with a Cessna 172 piston aircraft typically used as a pilot training aircraft for general aviation. The company – lead by former SpaceX and Tesla engineers – was able to program the aircraft to taxi, take-off, and land with just the push of a button and no pilot at the controls.
Once the Cessna 172 proved itself with a fully unmanned gate-to-gate flight in September 2019, a larger aircraft was brought in to test the technology on a larger scale. A Cessna 208 turboprop cargo aircraft owned by FedEx Express, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, was used and just completed its first automated landing in June.
Mastering the science behind self-flying planes will pave the way for unmanned commercial flights but also urban air mobility using autonomous vertical take-off and land aircraft to connect cities. Reliable Robotics to date has brought in $33.5 billion in funding to support the project.
Flight testing began in 2018 with the then-flagship of the Reliable Robotics fleet, a Cessna 172.
The four-seater is one of the most popular general aviation planes and often used for pilot training.
It's a basic plane with autopilot not even a common feature so systems would have to be completely reworked to allow for autonomous flight.
Reliable Robotics quickly went to work on upgrading its avionics, controls, communications, and other vital systems of the aircraft.
February 2018 saw the first flight of the aircraft with the new self-flying systems that would enable the first automated landing on Halloween of the same year.
Two months later, the 2,550-pound aircraft performed an entirely automated flight including taxi, take-off, and land maneuvers.
Flights were performed over a populated area in California with drivers on the roads below completely unaware that the aircraft flying over them was pilotless.
The only job performed by the pilot was to push a button and the Cessna went off on its own, though closely monitored by remote pilots on the ground who could take over at any moment.
Once the Cessna 172 proved the concept viable, it was time to upgrade to a larger aircraft.
A Cessna 208 registered to FedEx Express was acquired and used for testing to see if the tech could work on larger planes.
The shipping company uses this plane when bringing freight to more remote regions of the US and it's also popular for regional passenger flights.
The first flight with the turboprop took place nine months following the unmanned flight of the Cessna 172.
While both single-engine aircraft, the Cessna 208 is quite the step up in terms of speed and weight.
It took only three days of testing with the new aircraft before the first automated landing was performed.
Fully autonomous flight hasn't been achieved yet with the aircraft but if the success of the Cessna 172 can be replicated, it's only a matter of time.
The company's designers and engineers say the autonomous platform can be used on any fixed-wing aircraft – a big vote of confidence considering that includes aircraft as small as a piston Cessna 172 up to a six-engine Antonov 225.
Leading the three-year-old company are Robert Rose, a former SpaceX and Telsa engineer who worked on the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft as well as Autopilot 1.0 for the Tesla Model S, and Juerg Frefel, also a former SpaceX engineer who worked on Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft.
Other members of the team include Boeing and Airbus veterans who have worked on aircraft programs such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380.