Textron Aviation is to jointly develop autonomous flight capability for its current and future aircraft under a partnership with Xwing. A non-exclusive agreement signed on October 12 calls for the companies’ engineering teams to develop and certify remote piloting technology for Textron’s Cessna Grand Caravan utility aircraft.
California-based Xwing is already operating a converted Caravan under an experimental certificate for research and development purposes with a supervising pilot on board. In addition, it has commercial operations with Caravans through its Part 135 subsidiary San Antonio Air Charter. It has applied to the FAA for clearance to fly its experimental aircraft commercially with a ground-based pilot and safety pilot on board, and this approval is still in process.
Textron has asked the Xwing team to provide expertise on autonomous flight technology and help it with design and manufacturing work to integrate these systems into existing and new aircraft. In return, the U.S.-based aircraft manufacturer will provide its partner with engineering and certification support.
The agreement does not specify how Textron and Xwing might jointly market converted and new-build autonomous aircraft. However, Xwing has acknowledged that the partners are discussing this prospect and view strong eCommerce-fueled growth logistics and express delivery air services as a driver for autonomous operations, especially in view of the anticipated pilot shortage.
“The general aviation sector is ripe for new technologies,” commented Textron Aviation senior vice president Chris Hearne. “Textron Aviation has many of the most proven and scalable aviation solutions in the industry, and we are pleased to be the place where innovators like Xwing come for aircraft platforms.”
Xwing recently completed a $40 million funding round. Earlier this year, it carried out what it says was the world’s first autonomous gate-to-gate flight of a commercial cargo aircraft.
“It is an honor to work with Textron Aviation to optimize the next generation of aircraft for autonomous flight,” said Xwing founder and CEO Marc Piette. “Best suited and reliable for the air cargo industry, the Cessna Grand Caravan fleet has accumulated millions of flight hours. We look forward to playing a role in furthering the development of an autonomous aircraft using this platform as we reimagine the potential of autonomous technology within the aviation industry.”