While autonomous flight innovator Xwing is convinced that remotely operated aircraft are set to make a relatively quick and positive impact on the air freight business, the company believes it will take a lot longer to make this fundamental switch for passenger-carrying flights. Addressing the recent Electric Aircraft Symposium organized by the Vertical Flight Society, the company’s chief compliance and quality officer, Earl Lawrence, maintained that its plans to operate converted Cessna 208B Grand Caravans without pilots on board will transform the economics of the delivery industry. But he emphasized that passengers aren’t ready to accept autonomous flights any time soon.
Xwing’s plan is to control fleets of aircraft with operators supervising multiple flights simultaneously in ground stations. To prepare for this model to be approved by the FAA, the California-based start-up has acquired three air cargo carriers—San Antonio Air Charter, and more recently, Martinaire Aviation and AirPac Airlines—to test its autonomous flight technology in commercial flights with pilots on board. It is providing services under contract to express delivery giant UPS, with a combined fleet of 35 aircraft flying around 400 weekly missions.
Eventually removing that pilot from the cockpit for gate-to-gate operations “could be the beginning of a new industry that makes affordable deliveries to small, overlooked airports all over the country,” Lawrence told the symposium. He joined Xwing from the FAA in May, where he most recently was executive director of aircraft certification.
Xwing believes the business case for automating feeder cargo aircraft is strong, partly since going to autonomous operations would allow operators to get higher utilization rates and for the ground-based pilots to log eight-hour shifts without dead time on the road. Currently, with regional cargo, “flights go out for an hour and then they put the pilot in a hotel room for five hours," Lawrence said. "It’s not fun for them and they don’t get a whole lot of flight time. We can take an aircraft that's being used at an average about two and a half hours a day and try to use it more like an airliner—closer to 16 [hours].”
For now, Xwing is continuing to invest in infrastructure, building a communications and command center to maintain contact with the aircraft and testing various technologies. To date, the company has logged over 150 autonomous flights and 300 auto landings and amassed more than 200 hours of autonomous operations. Flights originate just north of San Francisco in Concord and are approved to operate at a handful of area airports.
According to Lawrence, Textron Aviation's Caravan is an ideal aircraft to test the technology. “The aircraft is relatively slow, safe, and stable," he said, adding that "getting all of those systems to work regularly and meet the requirements for certification is definitely a challenge, but it seems to be working well. And another differentiator for us is that we're doing the taxi. We're truly doing gate-to-gate. You have to show up at a UPS facility with a whole lot of other aircraft, park in a certain place, which does change, and get loaded up.”
The aircraft is equipped with light and visual sensors, inertial navigation, and GPS. It has a closed-loop automatic avoidance system and radar on board. “We have to be able to handle non-cooperative aircraft [i.e., those without collision-avoidance systems] and be able to maneuver around them,” Lawrence said.
As it refines its approach, Xwing continues to focus on hazard avoidance with a combination of technologies. It is developing a triple-redundant flight control system that can be switched on and off to enable crewed flights for maintenance ferrying. This will be fitted to existing aircraft under a supplemental type certificate.
However, despite the promise for air cargo, Lawrence thinks it will be a long time before commercial passenger aircraft fly completely without crews. “As the autonomy advances, it makes the operation safer and more efficient," he said. "But you're still going to have somebody involved. I'm not sure that people are going to be ready for full autonomy except in smaller operations with larger aircraft. The human acceptance piece is going to be a big part of it.”
While Lawrence believes that commercial airliners could eventually fly with one pilot, he doesn’t think the cabin attendants are dispensable. “Flight attendants are not there just to serve drinks," he said. "They're there for safety reasons.”