Autonomous flight technology pioneer Xwing recently conducted a fully autonomous gate-to-gate operation with its adapted Cessna 208B Grand Caravan aircraft. In a statement issued today, the company reported that the flight was made back in February 2021 from its base at Buchanan Field Airport in Concord, California, with the aircraft being remotely monitored from its mission control center and with a pilot on board as a backup.
The aircraft taxied from the gate to the runway, took off, and subsequently landed and taxied back to the gate in a fully autonomous operation. All interactions with air traffic controllers were conducted by the ground-based pilot who monitored the flight via data links with multiple redundancies.
Xwing announced the successful test on the same day that it completed a funding round that raised an additional $40 million in capital based on a $400 million valuation for the start-up. The round was led by Blackhorn Ventures, which was joined by ACME Capital, Loup Ventures, R7 Partners, Eniac Ventures, Alven Capital, and Array Ventures. It brought total funding so far to $55 million.
“Automating the flight is just the first step—you need to automate everything,” said Xwing founder and CEO Marc Piette, in describing how he sees automation transforming the scope for expanding commercial air cargo services.
Xwing has been conducting test flights since July 2020 as it prepares to seek approval for operations with its autonomous (non-piloted) Autoflight System, which has been in development for four years. It aims to be cleared to begin autonomous commercial cargo-carrying flights in 2022 on routes of up to 500 miles.
Before the company obtains a full supplemental type certificate (STC) to convert existing aircraft, it intends to obtain an exemption from the FAA to start flying unmanned over sparsely populated areas. The first step to that is to get an exemption to fly commercial services with a safety pilot onboard and, ultimately, with the full STC will come full authorization to operate in any airspace.
Last year, it acquired a small cargo operator based in San Antonio, Texas, to begin initial, piloted operations on a trial basis. It has been making some Covid-19 vaccine deliveries, with the flight costs donated, to the Navajo Nation Native American reservation. The company also is flying for one of the top three U.S. express delivery groups and it intends to expand its route network, exploiting the Caravan’s ability to land at small airfields with a payload of 4,000 pounds.
These flights have allowed it to collect data from its detect-and-avoid sensors to analyze airborne and ground-based hazards to support its efforts to achieve approval for a supplemental type certificate to convert existing aircraft. The system also includes navigation and control software to generate optimal flight paths, interface with ATC, monitor the health of aircraft systems, and deal with operational contingencies.
To help advance the rollout of commercial services with customers, Xwing has recruited Jess Kallman as vice president of commercialization and strategy. He has come from Airbus’s satellite and geospatial technology business, having previously worked with an unmanned systems start-up and before that in the same field with the FAA.
Recently, the company strengthened its engineering team with the addition of Keith Allen, who was formerly the chief engineer for flight controls with Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences’ Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System, which is based on the UH-1 Huey helicopter and very-long-endurance Orion UAV.
Xwing’s chief technology officer, Maxime Gariel, was previously a pilot and engineer with Rockwell Collins’s Control Group. He has extensive experience working on autonomous aircraft projects, such as leading the flight controls group for the AgustaWestland SW4 Solo autonomous helicopter and DARPA’s Gremlins UAV project. The company is now looking to triple the size of its team.