Bloomberg Businessweek March 15, 2021 pp18-19 |TECHNOLOGY|”Flight School for Robots” “A startup is building autonomous cargo planes for FedEx, with the long-term vision of shuttling around people, too” “The Bottom Line. Reliable Robotics has built much of the technology needed for a fully autonomous passenger plane, but government-approved flights remain far away.”
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Summary of the Article
Reliable Robotics founded by CEO Robert Rose in 2017 along with Juerg Frefel retrofitted a FedEx Cessna “with computers and high-precision global positioning systems…[that] communicate with custom mechanical devices that control the cables connected to the plane’s elevator, rudder, flaps and throttle.” Typical of aviation there’s a back-up for every system. Of course, autopilot systems are common in piloted-commercial aviation capable of performing take-off, although usually done by a pilot, flying and landing with software guiding all these complicated systems. Pilots manage communication manually with airports and other aircraft and “step in if something unusual happens.” The thought is generally accepted that computers can resolve issues much quicker than human pilots. “Software, which uses sensors and computer chips…should be able to spring into action and address [issues] immediately.” Rose (Tesla and SpaceX) and Frefel (SpaceX) bring significant experience in autonomous car and spacecraft from their prior experiences at Tesla and Space X.
Currently test flights are still manned just in case issues arise. Interestingly, “Communications with air traffic control are handled by a remote pilot at the company’s headquarters (Mountain View with flights out of the San Martin airport). “The pilot clears the plane for takeoff with the tower, gives it a route, and then makes sure all goes according to plan.” The initial plan is to perform cargo routes in “remote areas first.” Savings can be realized because as an example “instead of three pilots flying three round trips per day, a single remote pilot could oversee the journeys of all the aircraft from behind a computer.” This is how the U.S. military operates drones today. Getting FAA approval requires proving that Reliable’s “technology can deal with all kinds of emergencies through a combination of computer simulations and flights.” The FAA and others are skeptical of remote pilots but the agency recognizes it must facilitate this and other innovations in development. Reliable has $30 million in funding and besides validating to the FAA's satisfaction it needs to slim down the weight and cost of its systems. “Rose hopes to conduct cargo flights by the end of 2022” and believes robotic flight will become commonplace.