In a groundbreaking milestone, a pilotless Cessna 208B Caravan aircraft completed its inaugural test in just 12 minutes at Hollister Municipal Airport in San Benito County, California, on November 21. The “monumental aviation achievement” showcased the remote operation of the world’s most popular cargo plane, proving the viability of the technology, as stated by Robert Rose, co-founder, and CEO of Reliable Robotics in an interview with Forbes. He emphasized that this demonstration furthers their objective of developing an advanced automation system compliant with the Federal Aviation Administration’s stringent Part 23 airworthiness standards for normal category aircraft.
Rose highlighted the significance of certifying the system under existing regulations without special conditions or exemptions, a crucial step for its safe integration into the National Airspace System (NAS). The video accompanying the event provides a 360-degree experience inside the cockpit, offering viewers a unique perspective on this cutting-edge accomplishment.
In addition to this achievement, Reliable Robotics has been engaged in remote piloting collaborations with the US Air Force since 2021. The company is also a member of the CargoVision forum of ASL Aviation Holdings, a global aviation services company committed to exploring innovative aviation technologies.
The company, headquartered in Mountain View, California, provided the autonomous system for the aircraft. Despite the absence of a physical pilot on board, pilot Danah Tommalieh remotely commanded the plane from Reliable’s control center situated 50 miles away.
In contrast to some other remote operations, the absence of joysticks or manual controls for hands-on flying was notable. Instead, the remote pilot was presented with a menu of “valid, safe options” and had to make selections from these choices, as explained by Rose.
All commands are carefully validated to avoid putting the aircraft into precarious situations, such as flying too close to the ground or at inappropriate speeds. Rose informed Forbes that all takeoffs and landings are fully automated.
The company emphasizes that the Cessna Caravan, boasting a cargo capacity exceeding 3,000 pounds, can take off and land on short runways. This capability enhances its utility in reaching locations that might be otherwise challenging to access.
Col. Elliott Leigh, AFWERX director, and chief commercialization officer for the Department of the Air Force, praised the achievement, stating, “This monumental aviation achievement is a great example of how AFWERX accelerates agile and affordable capability transitions for the world’s greatest Air Force. This milestone accelerates dual-use uncrewed flight opportunities, increasing aviation safety and enabling us to bring a broad range of autonomous military capabilities into denied environments.”