Automated flight startup Xwing today introduced a system for fully autonomous flight. It’s the first system Xwing has shared publicly since the launch of the company. Xwing was created in 2016 with funding from investors like Stripe cofounders John and Patrick Collison and GitHub CEO Nat Friedman.
No fully autonomous, unmanned commercial aircraft currently operate in the United States. Xwing CEO Marc Piette hopes Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulators in charge of unmanned aircraft systems will approve such systems within the next two years. In a statement sent to VentureBeat, an FAA spokesperson said the FAA’s current regulatory framework provides some flexibility to introduce innovative vehicles and technology but declined to comment on an Xwing certification timeline.
Piette and Xwing believe unmanned flight of existing regional planes will get approval long before the kinds of air taxis being developed by companies like Uber and Boeing. For that same reason, other companies at the intersection of AI and aviation, like Skyryse, hope to prosper by making autonomous systems for existing helicopters.
Though autonomous vehicles on roads attract a lot of attention as a popular AI challenge, automation has become a part of aviation perhaps more than any other existing form of transportation. Commercial airplanes employ a lot of automation today, but pilots are still in the cockpit to, among other things, make sure there are no critical system failure and communicate with air traffic control personnel. Though Xwing says its system can handle a flight from takeoff to landing, humans are still needed for the planes to operate, particularly to communicate over radio with air traffic control officials.
“What we’ve been targeting specifically are regional distances there are often too long to drive, but they’re also too short to fly commercial aviation. So, 100 to 500 miles, for example,” he said. “We see a future where small aircraft, specifically autonomous small aircraft, will provide a new mode of transport along those routes. They’ll be complementary to maybe high speed rail in some parts of the world you have that between densely populated area.”
If approved for operation, Xwing envisions a fleet of unmanned regional planes carrying cargo in rural areas first for companies like Amazon, UPS, or regional businesses. Potential applications include medical diagnostics, transportation of essential industrial parts, or providing emergency supplies to remote or rural areas. In distant parts of the developed world, such planes could also help carry critical supplies or aid in a humanitarian disaster.
“We’re first going to be flying unmanned aircraft over unpopulated areas carrying cargo, then expand the envelope and start flying these aircraft over larger parts of the territory, including over populated areas and densely populated areas,” Piette said. “And once the public is comfortable with seeing unmanned aircraft fly around with cargo … we’d love to see how this could be applied for passengers transportation on regional level.”
The autonomous flight system is made especially for the Cessna Grand Caravan, a common plane used by companies like FedEx. A range of sensors like lidar are retrofitted near the plane’s wing struts to detect and avoid other planes. The systems are also used to provide guidance and dynamically reroute the plane if necessary, Xwing CTO Maxime Gariel told VentureBeat.
“This allows us to deploy our technology into a safe, well-tested platform, and then deploy it at scale, moving forward effectively without having to wait for new types of aircraft to come out onto the market and scale up production, which would slow us down significantly,” Piette said.
Gariel said the system was developed with a little less than 100 hours of actual flight time and a range of data collected in simulations. Xwing flight systems have also been tested as part of NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems program.
In other recent at the intersection of automation and flight, earlier this week the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit approved five drones for use by the U.S. military, including those from companies developing autonomous flight systems like Skydio.
Updated 9:16 a.m. to add statement from the Federal Aviation Administration.
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