Automation is king in 2024 as companies across sectors seek new ways to streamline their operations and cut costs. For the transportation industry, the prospect of self-driving cars isn’t enough to quench interest in autonomous travel.
A firm called Reliable Robotics just completed the first fully autonomous Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sanctioned flight. This milestone is a big one for the aviation industry and paves the way for safer air travel in the future.
In November 2023, a Cessna 208B Caravan took to the skies with no pilot on board and completed an entire test flight with total autonomy. The flight was supervised by a remote pilot in a control center some 50 miles away. However, the Reliable Robotics system didn’t need assistance as it piloted the cargo plane through taxi, takeoff, flight, and landing.
This impressive feat was achieved following a lengthy certification process that saw Reliable gain the FAA’s blessing in June. Notably, the firm’s certification doesn’t require any exemptions and fits existing regulations for normal- and transport-category aircraft. The Cessna aircraft used in the test flight was designed and manufactured by Textron Aviation Inc.
Cargo applications are the bread and butter of this style of aircraft. The Cessna 208B Caravan boasts a load capacity of 3,000 pounds and can take off from shorter runways. It is ideal for next-day or same-day shipments. Reliable claims that remotely operating these planes will increase the availability of such deliveries—especially in areas that don’t currently have access to enough human pilots to support them.
Per an article from FreightWaves, “Remote piloting, which is a step toward autonomous flight systems, will allow more communities to benefit from air service, especially with pilots in short supply.”
The Reliable Robotics system utilizes several layers of redundancy paired alongside advanced navigation features to prevent accidents. In a statement, Textron’s senior vice president of engineering and programs, Chris Hearne, said, “Reliable’s successful flight of an uncrewed Cessna 208 Caravan represents a milestone for the industry in bringing new technology to aviation.”
For now, Reliable’s goal isn’t bringing its autonomous flight technology to passenger jets. Instead, the company is focused on using its software to pilot uncrewed cargo flights, such as the one demonstrated in November.
However, according to Reliable Robotics CEO Robert Rose, the system could soon be flying alongside human pilots as an extra safety measure while testing continues. The autonomous system is designed to prevent controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) and loss of control in flight (LOC-I) accidents, which are responsible for most fatal aviation accidents.
While Reliable’s remote flight features are currently limited to smaller aircraft, the company envisions them being adopted in larger planes over time. Though many passengers would understandably feel hesitant about boarding a flight with no pilot on board, the development of autonomous flight capabilities is still a net positive for safer airline travel.
Over the coming decades, expect autonomous flight to be a blossoming field that becomes more advanced each year. While the lofty goal of self-flying passenger planes is likely a long way off (if it ever arrives), uncrewed cargo flights could be a boon to the logistics industry sooner than later.