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This cargo plane flew with no pilot on board

California-based Reliable Robotics has flown a Cessna Caravan without a pilot on board for the first time. It's just one example of how autonomous vehicles are slowly making their way towards widespread use.
Killian Page/Reliable Robotics
California-based Reliable Robotics has flown a Cessna Caravan without a pilot on board for the first time. It's just one example of how autonomous vehicles are slowly making their way towards widespread use.

By Jacopo Prisco, CNN

(CNN) — One of the world’s most widely used cargo planes completed an entire flight with no one on board for the first time.

Lasting approximately 12 minutes in total, the flight departed from Hollister Airport, in Northern California, and was operated by Reliable Robotics, which has been working since 2019 on a semi-automated flying system in which the aircraft is controlled remotely by a pilot.

The company recently announced that the 50-mile flight took place in November. The plane was a Cessna Caravan, a robust single-engine aircraft that is a popular choice for flight training, tourism, humanitarian missions and regional cargo.

“Cessna has made 3,000 Caravans — it’s the most popular cargo plane you’ve never heard of,” says Robert Rose, CEO of Reliable Robotics. “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 more adverse weather conditions than many large aircraft do today. So operating it is much more dangerous, and automation is going to go a long way to improve the safety of these operations.”

Consultancy firm AviationValues told CNN there are currently 900 Caravans in active service, and FedEx — which has been using the type since 1985 — is the largest operator with about 200 of them. Reliable Robotics is now working with the Federal Aviation Administration to certify its technology for commercial operations, and expects that process to be complete in as little as two years.

Not a video game

The remote operator — a real pilot who must be certified to fly the aircraft exactly as if they were sitting in the cockpit — sends commands to the plane via encrypted satellite signals, but does not pilot the aircraft in real time nor gets any visual feed from the plane itself.

The interface they use is closer to those used by air traffic controllers than drone pilots. “This is not a video game,” says Rose. “There’s no joystick and you don’t have the ability to hand-fly the plane remotely. There’s no video feed that gives you real-time feedback. The way they control the aircraft is essentially a menu of options: you can think of it like a ‘choose your own adventure’ based on where the aircraft is, and there’s a set of buttons to allow the pilot to redirect the plane somewhere else.”

Each command sent to the plane includes all instructions required to land, so the aircraft always knows what to do even if communications are lost. “You could say that the aircraft is autonomous,” Rose explains. “If you tell it to do nothing else, or if you lose communications with it, it’s going to do the last thing you told it to do, which is the definition of autonomy. It has no direct human control.”

Compared to a traditional autopilot, the Reliable Robotics system is able to perform all phases of a flight, including moving out of the gate and towards the runway, as well as taking off and landing. But as far as other aircraft or air traffic controllers are concerned, this is just like any other plane, Rose says, because the remote operator will respond to radio calls and handle voice communications in such a way that it’s impossible to tell they’re not aboard.

What if something goes wrong? According to Rose, there’s at least one advantage in handling emergencies remotely: if a pilot loses control of the plane, they can immediately inform air traffic control of its position and last command. “In many ways this is better than the way aircraft operate today, because if you’re flying around in the sky and you lose radio communications, or something goes wrong with the plane, you have to do something and air traffic control has no idea what you’re going to do. So they have to clear the airspace all around you because nobody knows what your intentions are.”

Larger planes

Once the system becomes commercially available, other security measures will come into effect, including a smart card that will be required to operate any aircraft. In addition, pilots will work from a control center where other people will be watching over them.

For now, Reliable Robotics is looking to certify the system for the Caravan, but is already testing it on a larger aircraft with the US Air Force — the KC-135 Stratotanker, a military refueling plane based on the old Boeing 707 — and hopes to start testing on jet cargo aircraft within five to 10 years.

According to Rose, remotely controlled regional cargo planes would have positive effects on both safety and the ongoing pilot shortage. “The pilot shortage is putting pressure on smaller aircraft operations, because the larger planes are sucking up all the pilots, and it’s becoming much more difficult to sustain operations with smaller aircraft fleets.

“We see remote piloting as a way to solve that problem in the near future.” He adds that airlines will be able to streamline their operations because layovers will no longer be required, as pilots will be able to work from a single location.

As for safety, Rose says that the system will prevent common types of accidents that are linked to human error, such as “unintentional collisions with terrain” and loss of control in flight, which account for the majority of fatal crashes. Rose explains that the Reliable Robotics system has been designed to prevent them, for example by cross-checking against a terrain and obstacle database in case the plane is erroneously programmed to fly into something.

“Significant milestone”

The history of pilotless aircraft goes back to the early years of aviation, with the first examples of unmanned planes developed in the US and Britain during World War I. Most unmanned aerial vehicles today are categorized as drones, performing a range of functions from military action to search and rescue and photography.

Merlin Labs and XWing, both in the US, and Volant in the UK, are among the companies developing similar systems to Reliable Robotics, with a similar attention to the cargo sector.

In recent years, the concept of pilotless air taxis has also gained interest, with a first historic flight performed by German company Volocopter in Dubai in 2017; the Emirate is now planning to inaugurate its first “vertiport” for flying taxis within three years, albeit using vehicles manned by human pilots. In China, urban air mobility company EHang was the first to obtain, in October, full certification from the local authorities to fly a pilotless passenger-carrying UAV — the result of over 40,000 test flights.

According to Jack W. Langelaan, a professor of Aerospace Engineering at Penn State University, who’s not involved with Reliable Robotics, the company has achieved a significant milestone by completing a flight from hangar to hangar without an on-board pilot.

“There are lots of hard things in robotic aircraft,” he told CNN. “Two of them are dealing with the unexpected and fitting into the existing air traffic control system. The unexpected includes things like mechanical and sensor failures.

“We can’t anticipate everything and we need to prove that the robotic ‘pilot’ is at least as competent as a good human pilot. Fitting into the air traffic control system is also tricky: at the moment it’s managed by humans talking to each other by radio, so Reliable used a remote pilot to manage this aspect of the flight. And of course, the human remote pilot was also ready to step in to deal with the unexpected.”

Gary Crichlow, head of commercial analysts at consultancy firm AviationValues, agrees that the technology to enable uncrewed operations is impressive. “That being said, the jump between crewed operations and uncrewed operations on a global scale is an extremely large one,” he cautioned. “It’s not just about the technology, it’s also about the economics and politics of replacing a highly skilled group of people with that technology. If anything, I’d expect those barriers to be even more difficult to overcome than the technological hurdles.”

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