Autonomous flight technology developer Xwing is partnering with satellite communications (satcom) group Inmarsat to provide inflight connectivity to support aircraft operations without a pilot on board. In an October 6 announcement, the two companies said they will develop a dedicated satcom terminal based on Inmarsat’s new Velaris solutions for UAV connectivity.
The terminals will be integrated with aircraft and will be able to access both satellite and terrestrial networks to provide consistent and optimal coverage throughout autonomous flights. Data services to support beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and command and control (C2) functions will be available via satcom links.
Inmarsat’s Velaris system uses the company’s Elera global satellite network and has been developed to support commercial drone operations. The partnership with Xwing is focused on how this hardware, and its supporting services, can be adapted, integrated, and certified for larger aircraft that are currently piloted.
California-based Xwing recently announced the completion of a $40 million funding round. In September, the company applied for FAA approval to add its Cessna 208B Grand Caravan technology demonstrator aircraft to the Part 135 operations certificate of its subsidiary San Antonio Air Charter.
If Xwing receives that approval, it would be able to deploy the aircraft on commercial services for one of its cargo customers, taking the scope of the flight trials beyond that covered by its existing experimental certificate. The company intends to convert multiple types of existing aircraft to remotely piloted operations.
“Given that Cessna Caravan aircraft fly long ranges and at higher altitudes, we require C2 solutions for consistent and reliable connections to the plane for our remote operators to control and monitor operations,” explained Xwing founder and CEO Marc Piette. “We are also communicating with air traffic control via the satcom link.”
Xwing emphasized that the proposed commercial operations would be compliant with the same maintenance, training, and other standards as its existing Part 135 flights. It intends to share data and lessons learned from these flights with the FAA to support the agency's FAA Beyond program, which is intended to enable the safe integration of future unmanned systems.
In April, Xwing operated an autonomous gate-to-gate flight, albeit with a pilot on board to oversee the controls. The Grand Caravan taxied from the gate to the runway, took off, and subsequently landed and taxied back to the gate in a fully autonomous operation.
The ground-based pilot conducted all interactions with air traffic controllers, and he also monitored the flight via data links with multiple redundancies. Xwing is already using Inmarsat’s satcom data services for its flight testing.
“Working with Inmarsat to develop a pioneer command and control solution for the future of flight has been an incredible and rewarding opportunity for our team,” Piette said. “As we inch closer to a future of widespread unmanned flight, it is more important than ever to develop the technology solutions needed to keep autonomous aircraft safe and efficient.”
According to Xwing, the global commercial aviation industry is expected to face shortages of between 34,000 and 50,000 pilots within a few years as demand returns and continues on its growth path following the Covid pandemic. With demand for eCommerce deliveries rising faster than passenger flights, the company views the cargo sector as an early adopter of remotely piloted operations and says that much higher volumes of deliveries could be made more efficiently this way. Last year, Xwing used its technology demonstrator aircraft to deliver Covid vaccines, PPE equipment, and school supplies to the Navajo Nation Reservation in Holbrook, Arizona.
Inmarsat has the world’s most extensive network of mobile satellite communications infrastructure and services, supporting the aviation industry, as well as other sectors such as maritime fleets and governments. Its satellites provide global coverage, supporting the L-band, Ka-band, and S-band spectrums.