Robot cargo plane takes off, navigates, lands autonomously | 'Future of aviation'

A San Francisco-based tech startup has taken a single-engine plane of a model that's been around for more than three decades and turned it into a robot.

The company, called Xwing, participates in a NASA program developing experimental aircraft. Now it is working with the FAA to certify a fleet of Cessna 208B Grand Caravan utility planes to carry cargo on short-haul regional routes. And no one will be at the controls.

Xwing's Autoflight System converts existing planes into autonomous aircraft that take off, navigate, and land themselves. 

Why autonomous? Because it is the future of air transportation, Xwing says, especially due to the 30-year trend of declining numbers of qualified civilian pilots, according to FAA stats.

"We believe the path to full autonomy begins with the air cargo market, and involves remote operators supervising fleets of unmanned aircraft," Xwing founder and CEO Marc Piette said in a statement. (Story continues below)

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Xwing's experimental Cessna plane on the ground at an airport. (Courtesy of Xwing)(Courtesy of Xwing)

The Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, which first flew in 1986, is used all over the world for regional commuting, hauling freight, flight training, medevacs, law enforcement patrols, humanitarian flights, and even military missions. It can carry more than 4,000 pounds of cargo.

Retrofitted with Xwing's tech, the 208B follows software-generated flight paths, reacts to detect-and-avoid sensors, and interfaces with air traffic control to complete its journey. An on-board pilot is optional. Instead, remote operators stand by to supervise the flights with the help of air traffic controllers. 

This summer, Xwing has conducted dozens of hours of testing, including more than 40 hours of automated flight time, according to a news release. In the coming months, it hopes to begin operating its own fleet of cargo planes but could also license the tech to other freight operators.

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