Reliable Robotics, a California-based startup came out of stealth mode this week announcing that it has demonstrated automated landing of a Cessna 208 Caravan on June 30th, 2020. With approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the company autonomously operated the turboprop aircraft owned by FedEx.
The company also revealed in a video, what is believed to be the first complete civilian unmanned flight over a populated area. On September 24, 2019 Reliable Robotics flew a Cessna 172 with no one on board in airspace just outside of San Jose, California.
Reliable Robotics was started by Robert Rose, who was once director of flight software at Elon Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, and later developed autopilot technology at Musk’s Tesla, and Juerg Frefel, who designed the computing platforms used for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon space capsule.
The two founded the company in 2017 with the vision of trying to get airplanes flying autonomously as quickly as possible. The idea was to bring autonomous capability to existing planes, starting with smaller aircraft for the transport of air cargo.
Rose and Frefel figured that it would be easier to gain FAA certification if they simply converted a tried-and-true existing airplane for robotic flight rather than building a clean-sheet air vehicle from scratch.
“When I first started taking flying lessons myself, my first thought was, why isn’t this automated?” said Rose in an interview. “I worked on autonomous rockets and spacecraft and cars. Aviation is so much more well understood compared to driving.”
Both the Cessna 172 and 208 have well-known safety and reliability records. This way only Reliable Robotics’ software and safety plans would require regulatory certification, not the airframes and engines. The Cessna 172 has been flying since 1955 while the Cessna 208 first flew in 1982.