A popular cargo plane model has achieved its first unmanned flight thanks to a Silicon Valley airline.
Reliable Robotics announced earlier this month that it had successfully flown and landed a Cessna 208 Caravan from Hollister Municipal Aircraft without a pilot.
Although the 12-minute flight was overseen remotely by a trained pilot, almost all of the work was done by the aircraft's onboard computer systems.
The Mountain-View-based company says it was the first time a cargo plane of this size has been flown remotely by a private company – marking a new milestone in the rapid advancement of autonomous aviation.
“Cessna built 3,000 campers — it's the most popular cargo plane you've never heard of,” Reliable CEO Robert Rose told CNN. “Pilots will tell you it's the workhorse of the industry.”
“But the challenge with this aircraft is that it flies at lower altitudes and in more adverse weather conditions than many large aircraft today. So it is much more dangerous to operate and automation will go a long way in improving the safety of these operations .”
Unpaid aircraft are nothing new in themselves. Military drones were widely used in the Vietnam War, and today such craft are as common under civilian Christmas trees as they are on the battlefields of Ukraine.
But now private companies like Reliable are trying to go a step further by building full-size cargo or passenger planes without pilots that can be integrated into the world's existing air travel infrastructure.
Rather than being directly controlled with a joystick, Reliable's Nov. 21 flight involved a human pilot sending simple commands to the plane's autonomous systems, which then performed maneuvers such as taxiing to the runway, taking off and landing safely.
The company believes such systems could alleviate the global pilot shortage and reduce crashes for small, rugged aircraft like the Caravan, which often fly close to the ground in mountainous terrain.
“I have family that lives in Oregon and there isn't really commercial air service to go visit them, but there are small airports.” So if we had small aircraft that had that level of automation, I could immediately say go visit my family,” Mr. Rose told San Francisco's ABC 7 television network.
He argued that such technology would create new jobs for pilots rather than automate them, because it would allow airlines to fly many more flights overall that likely require some human oversight.
The company is currently seeking certification for the Caravan from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and hopes to begin testing it on jet cargo aircraft in the future.