- Second Century
- ✈️ Issue #13: Why cargo planes will take the first step into the new digital age of aviation
✈️ Issue #13: Why cargo planes will take the first step into the new digital age of aviation
1. Cargo aviation will take the first step in autonomous flying.
2. Companies are using different strategies to get their aircraft certified. Which will be easier than getting an autonomously flying passenger aircraft certified.
3. However, there is more that needs to be done before autonomous aviation can be implemented on a large scale.
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👩✈️On the menu
Starter: An unexpected pioneer
Main course: "Crawl, walk, fly"
Dessert: The hardest part
An unexpected pioneer
Cargo aviation is not known for being on the forefront of innovation. The aircraft cargo operators use are often older than their passenger counterparts. Probably because boxes and ULD’s don’t care too much about an outdated interior or engine noise.
But this is all about to change.
Cargo aircraft are currently leading the way to a new digitized age of aviation. Companies like Merlin Labs, Reliable Robotics, Xwing are developing systems that can be integrated into existing aircraft to make them fly autonomously. All of them are going for flying cargo as their first business case.
🍲 Main course
"Crawl, walk, fly"
Robert Rose, CEO and founder of Reliable Robotics, states that “when it comes to air transportation, the benefits of automation have yet to be fully realized. We are still moving things around as if it were 30, 40, 50 years ago.”
As you can see in the video by Reliable Robotics, transforming an aircraft into an autonomously flying aircraft won’t be the problem.
However, shaking off that decades old legacy won’t be an easy task. It takes more than autonomously flying aircraft to have autonomous aviation. In an interview with The Air Current, the CEOs of all three companies agreed with the idea that “certifying and deploying autonomous aircraft will likely be a staged and incremental process, and will rely as much on the associated infrastructure and operational concepts as the technology on board.” It will take years before this technology is certified for everyday commercial use.
The most important aspect in getting this new highly digitized way of flying certified is gaining trust among certification authorities such as the FAA and EASA. As well as the general public, the people who will need to buy tickets and get on board. Companies must show them that their technology is at least as reliable as multipilot operations are today. Focusing on cargo reliefs the pioneers of having to convince people to buy a ticket. So, only the government to worry about.
Reliable Robotics uses the following three stage certification strategy:
Normal procedures: the aircraft needs to be capable of executing all stages of normal flight (taxiing, take-off and landing) in a safe way. A human pilot will be on board to intervene in case of abnormal situations and to guarantee separation from other aircraft.
Emergency procedures: being able to execute emergency procedures without human interference. A pilot will be on board during this stage.
Detect And Avoid: being able to maintain separation from other aircraft in the airspace. The last stage before the pilot can remain on the ground.
After completing these three stages the company will operate the aircraft with a remote pilot located on the grond. This strategy is aimed at removing the pilot as soon as possible, starting with relatively small cargo planes (as you can see in the video above).
Merlin Labs also has a three stage strategy, called “Crawl, Walk, Fly” but has a different approach:
Crawl: “We will work with the the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand and U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to certify Merlin Intelligence and integrate into NZ commercial flights.” Keeping the cockpit crew at full strenght, however, with more technological support.
Walk: “Crews are reduced on large, commercial cargo aircraft.”
Fly: “Large aircraft fly with reduced crew, and small aircraft fly without crew.”
Whereas Reliable Robotics aims at flying small aircraft without an onboard crew, Merlin Labs initially aims at larger aircraft with a reduced crew. The final goal of both companies is the same, building systems that can automate flying on all types of aircraft. However, the road they take to get there differs. One reason for that could be that Merlin Labs is using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to operate the aircraft, whereas Reliable Robotics uses existing auto-pilot technologies. AI is a technology that is new for many industries and certification authorities. It is therefore likely that it takes more time to certify a pilotless aircraft using AI to operate. What Merlin Labs initially wants to prove is that their system can be used to reduce the workload of the pilots, making it possible to do single pilot operations in large commercial aircraft. A first step in removing the two or three pilots all together.
And there is even a third option
While Xwing, Reliable Robotics and Merlin Labs develop technology for cargo aircraft that have a pilot seat, the company Pyka is working on a cargo aircraft that has never seen any person on board and probably never will. This is because it is being developed as a remotely piloted drone with the size of a regular 4-seater propeller aircraft. The aircraft is called the Pyka Pelican Cargo and as you can see on the image below, there is no room for people at all. Only for cargo.
Photo by Pyka
To improve the all-weather operations of the aircraft, the Pelican is equipped with Laser/RADAR based navigation, in addition to GPS. These systems are used to scan the terrain below the aircraft. Providing the remote pilot or, in the future, the fully autonomously operating computer to land on a runway even without ground based navigation systems or proper visibility.
You may have heard about this kind of vision-based navigation before. That is because this technology is also developed by Xwing and discussed in an earlier issue of this newsletter. Which I naturally recommend to read if you haven’t done already.
Michael Norcia, the CEO and founder of Pyka, gave an interview on CNN last week. He explained more about the history of the company and the technology they use. So if you have some time left after reading all this, I recommend watching this short video as well.
The hardest part
It’s hard to say which strategy will be most successful in developing autonomous aircraft for large scale commercial operations. Including passenger flights. What we can say is that the development of autonomous flying will emerge from cargo operations. Simply because there are no human lives at risk. That makes both certification and selling flights to customers easier. And since nobody has ever done this before, it is a good thing that different companies try different ways to get their technology certified for commercial use.
Besides companies building autonomously flying aircraft, we will also need others to develop the infrastructure to facilitate large scale implementation of this revolutionary mode of transportation. Having one aircraft flying by itself is not the most difficult part. that has already been done. The difficult part is having a dozen autonomous aircraft sharing an airspace with another dozen human-piloted aircraft. All operating to and from the same airport at the same time. What kind of communication technology will an Air Traffic Controller need to separate these two kind of aircraft? Which cyber security protocols are safe enough to be used for autonomous flying? Questions that are difficult to answer at the moment, but also just two of many questions that need to be answered before autonomous flying can take-off on a large scale. Even when it comes to cargo operations.