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  • Roger. Xwing

  • control ready to taxi.

  • Xwing caravan clear for takeoff.

  • This plane just took off on its own.

  • Don't have to do a thing.

  • There's a pilot in the cockpit but everything on this Cessna

  • Grand Caravan is automated. Xwing, a start-up in the Bay

  • Area took CNBC up for a test flight, where the pilot didn't

  • touch the controls once.

  • Xwing is a technology startup that develops technology to

  • automate aircraft.

  • Over the past 100 years, the technology inside airplanes has

  • become more and more advanced, from jumbo jets to smaller

  • cessnas. Most of the flying happening today has a high level

  • of automation, but pilots are still doing a lot of work. On

  • commercial flights, for example, pilots are telling the

  • autopilot what to do, you don't just set it and forget it. But

  • some see the next step to full automation as removing the pilot

  • completely. Reliable Robotics is another Bay Area start-up

  • working on doing just that.

  • We started Reliable Robotics to create a new type of airline. An

  • airline where instead of having pilots in a cockpit, you have

  • pilots in a control center.

  • Rose previously worked directly with Elon Musk on Tesla's first

  • version of autopilot.

  • We're definitely going to see autonomous aircraft well before

  • autonomous driving at scale. Driving has a huge number of

  • technical challenges as well as regulatory challenges. Whereas

  • with aviation, it's a much more tractable technical problem and

  • you have a regulatory environment that is ready to go.

  • Boeing recently demonstrated a successful autonomous flight of

  • its loyal wingman fighter jet, and Airbus recently performed

  • fully autonomous test flights on one of its larger commercial

  • aircraft. The technology is here, we want it to explore how

  • it works, and when pilotless planes will become the norm.

  • Before we look at what's happening today, let's take a

  • quick look back at how we got here. In 1903, the Wright

  • brothers took their first powered flight, and a few short

  • years later, the first iteration of autopilot was created.

  • Laurence Sperry's gyro stabilizer helped automatically

  • balanced the plane so the pilot wouldn't have to. Fast forward

  • to the 1950s and the rise of commercial aviation. At the

  • time, five people were needed in the cockpit to fly the plane.

  • Two pilots, a flight engineer, a radio operator and a

  • navigator. That number decreased over the next few decades.

  • In the late 70s and early 80s. We went from three crew to two

  • crew. The level of automation today, of course is much greater

  • in terms of what the workload of that crew actually looks like.

  • One of the first digital autopilot systems was used in

  • the lunar module that landed Apollo astronauts on the moon.

  • Although Neil Armstrong had to turn it off to land in a safer

  • area on the moon surface. Then in the 70s, NASA introduced

  • digital fly-by-wire systems. Fly-by-wire is basically

  • utilizing electronics rather than cables and pulleys, so to

  • speak, to manipulate flight controls. It's practically

  • instantaneous as it has to be.

  • The F 16 fighter jet was the first mass production

  • fly-by-wire jet. And that was a major breakthrough and it is now

  • inconceivable that a jetliner would be designed without

  • fly-by-wire flight controls

  • Autopilot evolved into higher levels of automation. The

  • military has flown remotely operated drones since World War

  • Two, and has continued to improve the technology. But

  • these military drones are not built to fly people and often

  • require video streams for remote operators to fly them. One

  • reason the military has continued to work on this is for

  • safety. The constant adjustments a computer makes versus a human

  • ensures for a much smoother and safer ride. 2017 was the safest

  • year in aviation worldwide on record. In the US, there has not

  • been a fatal crash since 2009. Here's how Reliable Robotics and

  • Xwing's technology works. Both companies have developed

  • software that allows them to remotely operate the plane from

  • the ground, if anything were to go wrong.

  • There's no joystick, you're not remotely sticking the plane with

  • our system, we give the remote pilot essentially an interface

  • that lets them specify all of this information. Load it all

  • into the system and then press execute. And then that is then

  • transferred through a SATCOM link up to the aircraft,

  • You can make an aircraft autonomous, that aircraft still

  • needs to communicate to the to a human, that human is the air

  • traffic controller. Those operators don't fly the

  • aircraft. Initially, they're going to be pilots because they

  • need to know how to communicate with air traffic control and how

  • these aircrafts integrate in the airspace. But they don't need to

  • know how to fly or land or take off. That's done entirely by our

  • system.

  • Reliable Robotics already did a test flight without anyone in

  • the aircraft and we got to go up with Xwing on one of its test

  • flights. The remote operator initiated our takeoff and off we

  • went. Do your instincts want to grab the yoke. To be

  • honest it was very alarming the first time it landed itself.

  • Even though the plane is flying on its own, a safety pilot must

  • still be on board.

  • So what we've done here is every time a pilot is involved

  • interacting with the aircraft, we've automated that

  • interaction, whether it be the throttles the brakes, the

  • control surfaces.

  • So we just got back from a fully autonomous flight with Xwing.

  • And my first impressions are that it was pretty normal, the

  • controls and the yoke were moving around by themselves. But

  • besides that, it felt like a normal flight. You know, I was a

  • little anxious going into this, knowing the pilot wasn't going

  • to actually do anything. But overall, it wasn't scary at all.

  • The planes are rigged with cameras, LIDAR and software

  • among a few things that can identify other aircraft and

  • detect potential issues. Rather than build a new plane, both

  • companies converted a Cessna Grand Caravan.

  • It's a lot easier and quicker to start with a tried and true

  • platform and make modifications to it to convert into an

  • unmanned aircraft than is to start from scratch. You can

  • already make all the assumptions around the airplanes air

  • worthiness, it has a track record of safety. And we can

  • really focus with the regulator on what modifications were made

  • to the aircraft to convert into an unmanned aircraft.

  • There obviously is a lot of energy right now going into

  • electric, vertical takeoff and landing urban Air Mobility,

  • advanced term abilities, but those aircraft have a ways to go

  • and they have their own technical problems that need to

  • be overcome. When we started the company, we decided that solving

  • the regulatory challenges was what was going to be our unique

  • differentiator. And you don't need to invent a new type of

  • aircraft to solve the regulatory challenges related to autonomous

  • operations.

  • I think a great deal has to do with where these systems are

  • being operated and less about the systems themselves. If we're

  • talking about operations over long rural, relatively

  • uninhabited regions, you know, that's going to be a lot easier

  • than vertical operations in urban areas. So when you see

  • systems proven, it's probably going to be more in that rural

  • setting, rather than in something urban.

  • Both companies are not able to operate its pilotless planes

  • commercially yet, because they're still working on getting

  • approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

  • The nice thing about the FAA is that it does provide some

  • flexibility for you to be able to design a system to get to

  • those levels of safety and still fly it as you're designing. This

  • used to be a type certified aircraft or commercial aircraft,

  • that we downgraded to an experimental aircraft so that we

  • could do a lot of flight tests without needing to demonstrate

  • that level of safety prior to doing some of those flight

  • tests.

  • We gave the FAA a very thorough rundown of every aspect of our

  • system, and how we intended not only to develop it, but also

  • operate it and then show through test and analysis that it would

  • be safe to do so.

  • Similar to self driving cars, self flying planes will also

  • need lots of data.

  • We've been flying commercially with piloted aircraft on the

  • cargo side for larger logistics companies since December of last

  • year. This allows us to collect data along commercial routes at

  • scale that feeds into the training or algorithms, but also

  • the certification program.

  • Data helps algorithms learn how to deal with all situations,

  • including emergency landings. One of the problems that you

  • need to solve in automating an aircraft through all phases of

  • flight is you need to look at what could possibly go wrong in

  • each phase, and you have to methodically break down all of

  • these potential failures and develop a mitigation for every

  • single one of those failures. One advantage of an automated

  • aircraft system is it can recognize anomalous behavior

  • much faster, then an onboard human might recognize and then

  • respond to it much faster. So if you have for example, an engine

  • failure, we can trip an alarm immediately and then begin

  • executing an emergency response procedure. So the aircraft will

  • immediately get into a most desirable or safe configuration.

  • Notify the remote pilot who then in turn can notify air traffic

  • control, and then the remote pilot can help guide the

  • aircraft towards a desired emergency landing location.

  • Both companies aim to bring autonomous planes to the air

  • cargo industry first. The Global Air Cargo market is expected to

  • grow from $56.48 billion in 2020 to 99.67 billion in 2025. Both

  • plan to first fly cargo to remote areas in smaller planes.

  • Cargo stands out as the biggest opportunity space, specifically

  • small cargo planes, these planes tend to serve communities that

  • without air wouldn't be served otherwise. And for these types

  • of groups, we can serve them at a lower cost and higher

  • frequency than what they'd enjoy today.

  • Reliable Robotics is testing with a FedEx owned prototype.

  • FedEx, UPS, DHL, etc. have actually been looking at

  • automating these planes for quite a long time and they've

  • been looking for solutions. That aircraft like the Cessna Caravan

  • is by the numbers the world's most popular cargo plane. FedEx

  • operates over 230 of these in the US alone. UPS through a

  • bunch of partner companies has several 100 themselves as well.

  • Rose, who is also a pilot worked at SpaceX before he worked on

  • Tesla's autopilot.

  • I previously had automated fully autonomous spacecraft that that

  • went to the ISS at SpaceX, it could go to the International

  • Space Station with no human intervention. I'd worked on self

  • driving cars at Tesla that could go 70 miles an hour down the

  • 280, thinking, why hasn't anybody done this in aviation?

  • Clearly, we possess the technology. Why can't regular

  • people experience automated flight? And the simple answer

  • is, it's really the regulatory environment is not there yet.

  • Though the companies are starting with cargo, the long

  • term plan is to carry passengers as well.

  • There's currently about 30 airports that make up 70% of air

  • travel, we're gonna see smaller aircraft flying at higher

  • frequencies. Out of more municipal regional airports, we

  • actually have 5000 airports in the US available for public use

  • today. But in order to use those, you either need to be a

  • private pilot or you need to be exceptionally wealthy. And what

  • automation will enable you to do is by lowering the cost of

  • getting into air travel will be able to build systems that work

  • much like an on demand ground transportation system like Uber

  • or Lyft. This technology

  • has the potential to open up a brand new market and

  • significantly scale, you know, grow that market.

  • Neither company knows when they will get approval, but both are

  • optimistic it will be in the next few years. But when will we

  • see commercial flights without a pilot? Though autopilot is very

  • advanced commercial flights still require two pilots in the

  • cockpit.

  • The level of automation in commercial aircraft, even in a

  • corporate aircraft is highly sophisticated, we can program

  • the airplane to take off and and especially to land all by

  • itself, we need to put the gear down and we need to put the

  • flaps down and that's essentially all the pilot really

  • has to do if it's programmed appropriately.

  • Airbus has conducted fully autonomous flight tests on it's

  • a350, which is a lot larger than the cessnas Xwing and Reliable

  • Robotics are testing. The wide body jet achieved autonomous

  • taxiing, takeoff and landing. Boeing has a number of defense

  • platforms that are autonomous and publicly stated it's looking

  • into pilotless aircraft. Safety is a big reason as to why. In

  • the 1960s, the world's airline fleet had a rate of 27.2

  • accidents per 1 million departures. Today with the

  • current generation of aircraft the rate is 1.5 accidents per 1

  • million departures.

  • There are situations where an autopilot is better than

  • actually flying your plane yourself. There are certain

  • weather requirements that require us to use the autopilot

  • in certain situations visibility down to a certain level and a

  • certain approach requires that we do use an autopilot.

  • While rare, 80% of all aviation accidents are caused by humans.

  • That figure includes pilots, air traffic controllers, and

  • mechanics. But the misunderstanding of automation

  • has been implicated in accidents. For example, the 2009

  • Air France flight that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on its

  • way to Paris, investigators concluded that autopilot had

  • turned itself off, and the pilots weren't able to take

  • manual control over the plane. More recently, the flight

  • control software of the two 737 max planes that crashed in 2018

  • and 2019 were cited as one of the reasons for the accident.