Reliable Robotics has reached a milestone in the development of its autopilot: FAA acceptance of the certification basis for the advanced navigation and autoflight system, which will eventually enable pilotless flights monitored by ground personnel.
The certification basis is for a supplemental type certificate (STC) to install the advanced autopilot in the Cessna 208 Caravan single-engine turboprop. Reliable Robotics expects to receive the supplemental type certificate in the second half of 2023.
Under the plan outlined in Reliable Robotics’ G-1 issue paper, which defines the certification basis, the company said, “This STC will enhance safety by enabling continuous autopilot engagement through all phases of aircraft operation, including taxi, takeoff, cruise, landing, braking, and rollout, with a single pilot on board for abnormal procedures.” Reliable Robotics has already demonstrated this kind of operation in the Caravan and also in a Cessna 172, flying from its test base at San Martin Airport near San Jose, California.
“This certification basis is the culmination of years of work with the FAA and represents a key step towards bringing advanced navigation and autoflight systems to normal category aircraft,” said Mark Mondt, director of certification at Reliable Robotics. “We look forward to continuing our work together as we move into the next phase of the certification process.”
In June, Reliable Robotics achieved another milestone: flying a human-piloted Caravan in cargo operations in the Albuquerque, New Mexico area.
While starting up a Part 135 cargo operation is not by itself hugely significant, what Reliable Robotics learns about this kind of operation will inform its ability to fly Caravans and other airplanes without any input from an onboard pilot and eventually with only a manager on the ground monitoring the flight.
“Our goal is not to be an operator,” said chief business officer Myles Goeller, “but to provide systems and services [for other operators] to use in a cost-effective way.”
Systems engineering manager Jonathan Dring sees the Reliable Robotics Part 135 operation as smoothing the transition to autonomous flight. “It’s great learning [experience] to help us develop this capability,” he said. “And it will ease adoption by other operators.”
Meanwhile, Reliable Robotics has received a Small Business Innovation Research Phase II contract from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) “to design, develop, and test autonomous aircraft capabilities on Air Force platforms.” The company’s plan has always been to make its remotely piloted aircraft system available on many aircraft types, and the AFRL contract will support that effort.
“In the last nine months, there has been a massive increase in automation in defense,” Goeller said. “This is a parallel market for what we’re doing [with commercial aircraft]. It could get faster traction on the Department of Defense side.” Reliable Robotics is discussing a variety of aircraft types that could be fitted with the remotely piloted aircraft system, including C-130 transports, air tankers, and others.
The remotely piloted aircraft system, he said, “is model-agnostic. What is portable and transferable is the system design and software and certification path. But the ground and communications structure is agnostic.”
“If you understand one type, it works with others,” Dring affirmed.
The company is exploring larger aircraft applications on the civil side, including Part 25 transport category certification. “We’re investing in that,” Goeller said.
However, the key to making the remotely piloted aircraft system work is not just the advanced autopilot but contingency management. In its flight testing in a Cessna 172 and the Caravan, Reliable Robotics has completed autonomous, remotely piloted flights, but with a human pilot onboard. That person's skills help with handling contingencies, such as a system or engine failure, communications breakdowns with the remote operator, a birdstrike, and unanticipated failures.
Designing the autonomous system and the remote operator capability to be able to respond to such failures is challenging but a key part of making the remotely piloted aircraft system work. This is why Reliable Robotics has designed its own software and hardware. “We design the autopilot components differently,” said Dring. “They’re designed for stable operations, but the autopilot [incorporates] full contingency conditions. It’s completely automating the flight envelope and requires more specialized components versus a regular autopilot.”
Reliable Robotics, headquartered in Mountain View, California, employs more than 100 people, mostly engineers and certification specialists, according to Goeller.