The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

NASA Contracts Xwing To Study Safety of Autonomous Flight Operations

Autonomous flight pioneer Xwing is working with NASA to develop a safety management system for increasingly autonomous flight operations, the company announced today. 

Under the newly signed Space Act Agreement led by ​​NASA’s System-Wide Safety (SWS) Project, Xwing will share its data, algorithms, and autonomous flight expertise with the agency. NASA will use this to help validate and evaluate safety management systems for future autonomous flight operations. In return, the agency will share with Xwing “information and tools for the evaluation of algorithms and operational data, safety analysis and assessment, safety management systems, and risk analysis and prognostics,” the company said in a statement.

“It's helpful for us in how we develop our products, getting access to a lot of the great research and data and things that NASA has developed over the last several years when it comes to this market,” Xwing’s vice president of commercialization and strategy, Jesse Kallman, told FutureFlight

San Francisco-based Xwing aims to operate a fleet of modified, self-flying Cessna 208B Grand Caravan cargo planes without any pilots on board, with ground controllers monitoring multiple simultaneous flights from a mission control center. The company has been flight-testing its so-called “Superpilot” autonomous flight system for two years under an experimental certificate for research and development purposes, and it achieved the first fully autonomous gate-to-gate flight in February 2021. 

The company, which is already operating as a Part 135 air cargo carrier in the U.S. and delivering cargo for UPS, is working toward a supplemental type certificate that will allow it to begin making cargo deliveries with its modified Cessna airplanes. The company hopes to eventually have its Superpilot certified for passenger flights, too.  

Kallman explained that the focus of the three-year contract with NASA will be to study the impact that autonomous flight operations will have on the National Airspace System, particularly when it comes to the safety implications associated with self-flying, pilotless aircraft. Xwing and NASA will work together to identify and quantify those risks.

“NASA focuses its research and technology transfers to have real impact, and this will help NASA understand the real-world challenges that industry is facing,” said NASA SWS project manager Misty Davies. “Emerging aviation relies heavily on advanced automation to ensure safety, and Xwing is working to bring novel, safe aviation opportunities to the American public.”

One thing Xwing will share with NASA is the company’s concept of operations, which lays out exactly how, when, and where Xwing plans to conduct its autonomous flights. The concept of operations also details how Xwing’s autonomous aircraft will interact with the surrounding airspace. The company will also provide NASA with data and algorithms pertaining to its vision-based auto-landing system, which uses sensors and cameras to allow its aircraft to autonomously land on airport runways.

Because NASA already works closely with the FAA and the private sector on advanced air mobility, the agency will be able to provide Xwing with “access to a ton of data from a variety of different flight-test campaigns,” Kallman said. “They’ve developed their own internal algorithms, [which] they can then provide back to the market, so there's an opportunity for us to better improve our auto-landing system by using additional datasets that maybe they have that we don't have access to.” For example, NASA has developed and released a vehicle-to-vehicle communication tool for collision avoidance in dense urban environments, which the agency has shared with the private sector to help improve safety. 

Xwing’s agreement with NASA will provide the company with “new algorithms that are potentially developed in the government, which we can then use commercially to improve our products and make them safer,” Kallman said.

The findings of this Space Act Agreement could also affect FAA regulations pertaining to autonomy and uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS), Xwing founder and CEO Marc Piette told FutureFlight. “Some of the work with NASA and the FAA here is really, how can we figure out ways to certify these types of technologies,” Piette said. 

“In our case, that's where the fleet comes in. We've been building up a fleet on the Part 135 side. That's why we're flying 400 flights a week right now, and that's going to keep expanding because it does allow us to collect data across all sorts of environments and geographies,” Piette said. “That data feeds into the algorithms from a training perspective, but it also helps us validate the performance of the systems as well, so these things come together.”