Self-driving cars may still be a distant dream despite massive progress in the last few years, but automated aircraft carrying cargo and passengers may soon be a possibility. Former Tesla and SpaceX employees have built an automated system that can carry cargo without a hitch.

The start-up, Reliable Robotics, founded in 2017 by engineers who designed Tesla's autopilot, SpaceX's Dragon and Falcon rockets, wants to remove the complex process of flying an aircraft. About a year ago, they successfully flew a Cessna 172 Skyhawk passenger aircraft without a pilot. While it will take time to completely automate a big passenger plane, the team believes cargo planes could be possible in the near future. It will not only remove the possibility of human error but will be cost-effective as well.

"Flying is hard. It requires a lot of cognitive ability," said Reliable Robotics' co-founder and CEO Robert Rose, who is also a pilot. Thus, he knows from his experience that fully automating aircraft is not impossible.

Automated aircraft
Reliable Robotics' automated system aims to disrupt the aviation industry YouTube screengrab/ Reliable Robotics

"By bringing advanced automation to aviation, we will deliver higher safety, reliability and convenience for cargo operators and eventually for passengers," Rose told Businesswire.

Remote Piloting

However, the system isn't completely automated. There is a pilot involved but it's more like Flight Simulator. The pilot doesn't actually sit inside a cockpit to fly the aircraft. It's remotely piloted from the ground, like the combat drones.

To do that, Reliable engineers retrofitted aircraft with automated systems, rather than developing its own aircraft. Tesla too followed the same path in their quest for automation. Rose said that the team focused on C172 to test every aspect of the automation system through simulation. "We 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," he added.

After C172, the company shifted its focus on a larger Cessna 208 Caravan. Although the latter is a passenger plane, it is used to carry cargo. FedEx is one of the logistics companies that use C208 for shipping. Reliable was successful in testing. In June 2020, they performed a remote landing of a C208 in San Jose, one of the most crowded airspace.

Automation
Reliable Robotics' automation component that allows unmanned flights YouTube screengrab/ Reliable Robotics

Funding and Future

With over $33 million in venture funding and successful tests, Reliable is now looking to partner logistics companies to join the autonomous industry that is skyrocketing. However, instead of just being a developer of the automated flight system, Reliable is focusing on making it a service. Its automated components can be fitted to any fixed-wing aircraft. Rose said that will be the focus for now as the Federal Aviation Administration requires a certification for almost all the things related to an aircraft.

"If you want to operate in the airspace you have to certify your maintenance plan, your procedures... the entire business needs to be certified by the FAA. If for the first time someone operates an aircraft with no pilot on board that the entire business is going to have to be certified. At least for the first several years, we see this being operated as a service," Rose said.

However, despite being an early player in the industry, Reliable will have competitions from two aviation giants Airbus and Boeing. Both are testing a fully automated system that would leave the human pilots in the control room instead of cockpits. Even Embraer, the helicopter manufacturer, is also leaning towards automated choppers.

But experts believe the autonomous disruption will come only from start-ups not the established companies like Boeing or Airbus. "We need disruptors, that may not necessarily be financially successful, but that could actually instigate innovation that otherwise would not come from the large, established OEMs," Air Lease Executive Chairman Steven Udvar-Hazy told Flight Global.

JetBlue Airways founder, David Neeleman believes Reliable is well-positioned to be a key player in the disruptive market as the automated aircraft will "fundamentally shift the entire airline business."