A novel strategy to create planes that can fly themselves– The Wall Street Journal
As the old adage goes “change is the only constant” – it only seems befitting, more so in the aviation industry now. Automation is, and has always been, inevitable with the industry trying to enhance security and reduce manual workforce which would lower the overall airfare.
Xwings, with its headquarters based in San Francisco, develops the suite of technologies developed for small unmanned passenger flights. Xwing is different from some of the other autonomous aviation startups that have popped up in recent years. The startup isn’t building autonomous helicopters and planes. Instead, it’s focused on the software stack that will enable pilotless flight of small passenger aircraft.
Xwing has been developing a technology stack to convert aircraft – a CESSNA GRAND CARAVAN 208B in this case, to function autonomously. But the project was not a easy one to take off smoothly as it has had to face a number of challenges in what would constitute as „perception“, „planning“ and „control“ problems.
„The company has come up with a whole suite of solutions to solve for these problems, including integrating lidar, radar and cameras on the plane; retrofitting the servomotors that control the rudder, braking and other functions; and ensuring all of these are communicating properly so the plane understands where it is in space and can execute its flight.“As explained to TechCrunch by Xwing founder Marc Piette
Xwing Flight Ops decoded
- The company has already performed close to 200 missions with its AutoFlight system. For all these flights, there’s been a safety pilot on board. In addition, a ground control operator sits in a control center and acts as a go-between from the autonomous aircraft to the human air traffic control operator.
- The company is also looking to eventually remove the safety pilot, but only once full safety redundancies are in place and that includes redundancies across all sensors and computer systems.
Smaller Class III aircraft like the ones Xwing is targeting must demonstrate a risk of one catastrophic failure per hundred million flight hours.– Piette
For its autonomous flight activities, the company has authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly under an experimental airworthiness certificate for research and development that was expanded in August of last year to include a special flight permit for optionally piloted aircraft (OPA).
For safety critical applications, we don’t view that as a useful path… but what we do, though, is that we have a ground operator in our control room that just talks to air traffic control on behalf of the aircraft. So for the air traffic controller, it’s seamless. As far as they’re concerned, they are just talking to a pilot onboard the aircraft.”– Piette
The autonomous flights are only one part of Xwing’s business activities. It’s also been flying manned commercial cargo operations under a contract with a large logistics company signed December 1.
Following is the unveiling of the world’s first autonomous regional cargo aircraft by Xwing:
- guyanaaviation.com (Cover photo)