An aviation firm run by former Tesla and SpaceX engineers are developing self-flying planes and just taught a cargo plane how to land on its own

Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 208 used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
  • Reliable Robotics is developing autonomous flight technology with successful automated trials using Cessna aircraft. 
  • A Cessna 172 piston aircraft was first used to prove the concept viable with an entirely autonomous gate-to-gate flight performed in 2019.
  • Testing is continuing with a larger Cessna 208 cargo plane to prove the technology works with larger aircraft.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

 

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. 

The race is on across the industry as aircraft manufacturers like Airbus are dedicated resources to make it a reality. Recent autonomous flights using an A350-1000 XWB is prompting the builder's Silicon Valley incubator to acquire an aircraft that will collect data to power future automated flights.

Here's how it works. 

Flight testing began in 2018 with the then-flagship of the Reliable Robotics fleet, a Cessna 172.
Cessna 172
A Cessna 172 aircraft similar to the one used by Reliable Robotics.
The four-seater is one of the most popular general aviation planes and often used for pilot training.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 172 aircraft used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
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 Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 172 aircraft used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
Reliable Robotics quickly went to work on upgrading its avionics, controls, communications, and other vital systems of the aircraft.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 172 aircraft used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
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.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 172 aircraft used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
Two months later, the 2,550-pound aircraft performed an entirely automated flight including taxi, take-off, and land maneuvers.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 172 aircraft used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
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.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 172 aircraft used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
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.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A remote pilot monitoring flight activities.
Once the Cessna 172 proved the concept viable, it was time to upgrade to a larger aircraft.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 172 aircraft used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
A Cessna 208 registered to FedEx Express was acquired and used for testing to see if the tech could work on larger planes.
FedEx Cessna Grand Caravan
A Cessna 208 aircraft similar to the one used by Reliable Robotics.
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.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 208 aircraft used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
The first flight with the turboprop took place nine months following the unmanned flight of the Cessna 172.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 208 aircraft used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
While both single-engine aircraft, the Cessna 208 is quite the step up in terms of speed and weight.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 208 aircraft used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
It took only three days of testing with the new aircraft before the first automated landing was performed.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 208 aircraft used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
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.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
A Cessna 208 aircraft used for autonomous flight testing by Reliable Robotics.
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.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
The Reliable Robotics team.
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.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
The Reliable Robotics team.
Other members of the team include Boeing and Airbus veterans who have worked on aircraft programs such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380.
Reliable Robotics Autonomous Plane
The Reliable Robotics team.
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