Something to rely on: Reliable Robotics’ autopilot flies solo

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The famous Keane song “Somewhere Only We Know” features the lyric “I’m getting old, I need something to rely on”. Irrespective of age for both pilot and aircraft that ‘something’ may soon be an always on autonomous flight system from the aptly named Reliable Robotics. 

Last month, in a first for aviation, Reliable’s Cessna 208B Caravan flew with no one onboard supervised by a remote pilot sat in a control centre over 50 miles away. The system is aircraft agnostic and uses multiple layers of redundancy and advanced navigation technology, according to creators. 

The system, which remains on permanently during operations, will prevent controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) and loss of control in flight (LOC-I). Both CFIT and LOC-I account for the majority of fatal aviation accidents. 

“We’ve been working on this for a long time,” said Reliable’s CEO Robert Rose, with a smile indicative of his appreciation in reaching a milestone that had been long in the making. “We first flew a Cessna 172 with nobody on board back in 2019, and then we shifted gears to work on the Cessna Caravan. This news is significant because not only have we flown two aircraft with nobody on board, but now we have flown with a pretty good chunk of our certifiable system that we’ve been working with the FAA on.”

For aviation as a whole, this flight was signifiant because it was not part of a military-focused programme that resulted in test flights out of an airbase, said Rose. “To my knowledge this is the first time anyone has done this on an airplane of this size. I say airplane because there are a few helicopter conversions that have been done — again with a military focus.”

It is hard to say how far along the arduous path to integrating large uncrewed aircraft into the national airspace system Reliable finds itself. “It is a very, very long journey. We’ve been at this now over six years, and many have come before us working on this. So we are building on a lot of good work done by the folks who came before. Metaphorically speaking we are standing on the shoulders of giants. That said, I think it is still going to take quite some time.

“It is hard to predict when because of the nature of safety critical systems development means you have to dig into the details, and when you dig in you find things. If you don’t find things you’re probably not looking hard enough. I hate to put a year on it, but I do think we will see system’s like ours operating in the real world by the end of the decade,” said Rose.

One of the key challenges in certifying autopilot systems like Reliable’s, or Garmin’s AutoLand, is that it is not possible to test all of the possible combinations that the aircraft and automation may experience in the real world. Reliable is working with the FAA to verify as much of the system as possible in simulation, before it goes out to do a series of flight tests in various environmental conditions. “This will essentially prove that our simulation matches the real-world,” said Rose. Tests will be performed to assess the weight and balance envelope, a range of density altitudes, crosswind, headwind and tailwind conditions. “Literally millions of combinations. Then we have to take the most extreme of those, such as a worst case crosswind with a worst case tailwind component, and then actually test them in the real world,” added Rose. Reliable creates most of its simulation software in-house, as well as working with external consultants for certain tests.

Reliable will also need to test further with other aircraft in the same airspace. So far it has completed a limited series of these tests with the help of the FAA and NASA. The firm’s recently announced air-to-air radar is reliant on passing such tests to attain certification. “We hope to have a prototype ready very soon and then we will be doing exactly that. So we will be putting the radar on the always on autopilot system and we will be verifying the real world performance of that radar for the purposes of real-time collision avoidance,” said Rose.

Reliable’s certification plan is split in two stages — or two separate supplemental type certificates (STC). The first STC the firm calls Continuous Autopilot Engagement, which is the always on autopilot that flew Reliable’s most recent milestone. This is new in that no regulator has ever certified an autopilot that you turn on from the ground and will be overseen by a controller 50 miles away. “There is a lot of detail in that STC around how we’re certifying the navigation system, auto takeoff and auto land performance, takeoff rejection as well as emergency condition management,” explained Rose.

The second STC will see Reliable add the air-to-air radar and the communications system, and that then allows the firm to move the pilot out of the aircraft to its ground control station. 

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