Rapid Progress in
Autonomous Flight
Text by Divan Muller
Photographs courtesy of Reliable Robotics
Launched by SpaceX and Tesla veterans, Reliable Robotics has made great strides in the development of unmanned aircraft technology. Recently, the company revealed some of its milestones in pioneering unmanned aviation.Based in California, Reliable Robotics was founded in 2017 by Robert Rose and Juerg Frefel. Robert Rose, who previously led development teams at Tesla, SpaceX and Google’s X, has considerable experience in engineering systems for robotics, self-driving vehicles and the aerospace industry. Co-founder Juerg Frefel, developed systems for the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft at SpaceX.

With a staff complement of about thirty people, the Reliable Robotics team began modifying a Cessna 172 in December 2017. Before the end of the next year, the 172 completed its first fully automated gate-to-gate remotely operated flight. Then, in September 2019, the aircraft completed another automated flight, this time without any test pilots onboard. It was the first time a privately funded company operated a passenger aircraft of this type with no pilot on board over a populated region. “We spent the first portion of our flight test programme focused on the C172. We thoroughly tested every aspect of our system in simulation and 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,” said Robert Rose in a company press release.

According to the release, the Cessna 172 was equipped with a “proprietary autonomous platform that can be applied to any fixed-wing aircraft. The platform includes avionics, software, mechanisms, a communications system, remote control interfaces, along with a backup system that has the capability to take over if needed. Following the C172 programme, it was adapted for use on the larger Cessna 208.”

As it happened, the first automated Cessna 208 test flight took place in June this year, with a fully automated landing taking place soon thereafter. To find out more about the technology in these aircraft, Aviation News Journal spoke with Robert Rose.

According to Rose, “People have been flying autonomous aircraft for some time, the military has been doing this for a while, but I think what makes our demonstration unique, is we are not a military funded programme. This is private money.

“We also got approval to fly over a populated area. I don’t believe that’s ever been done before through a completely privately funded programme. But more importantly, we set out from day one with certification in mind.” He mentioned that many of the components the company has developed are certifiable. “We are now working with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) on getting this approved for use in a civilian and commercial capacity,” he added.

Do these aircraft fly with the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning? Not quite. In the words of Rose, “There is artificial intelligence in the sense that it is an intelligent system, but it is not AI in the deep learning sense by any stretch. There is no regulatory basis for flying machine learning or deep learning systems in airplanes yet. We wanted to focus on what can be done right now.”
This does not mean Reliable Robotics makes use of a regular autopilot system. “I wish we could have bought an off-the-shelf autopilot,” said Rose. “The fact is nobody makes an autopilot that can handle all phases of flight: taxi, take-off and landing,” he added. “The other problem is that they don’t handle failures gracefully… If you’re going to automate the entire aircraft, and you’re not going to have a pilot in there, then you need something that can not only detect failures, but also respond to them immediately. So, we set out to go built it. A lot of the methodologies and principles that we’re following echo what we developed at SpaceX.”

In terms of equipment, what exactly does it take to automate a small cargo aircraft, such as a Cessna 208? “We have developed custom computers, software, mechanisms, communication systems, ground control centres, back end data network for transferring all of the data between the aircraft and the control centre…” Rose mentioned that “actuators are another thing that we have spent a great deal of time developing. You can’t buy actuators of the shelf that are suitable for automating the aircraft to this degree.”

Looking at the rate at which Reliable Robotics has achieved its milestones, it is impressive how quickly the team has made progress. “This is really a testament to the simulation capability that we have developed,” remarked Rose. “We felt from the beginning that it was of crucial importance that we build a simulation capability for our aircraft that the world has never seen before!” The team was able to model flight dynamics with great accuracy, with the result that systems worked remarkable well during actual test flights, saving a significant amount of time.

For further information, as well as more recent news on the development of autonomous cargo flights, please visit www.reliable.co