Xwing awarded SBIR contract with US Air Force
Xwing has been awarded a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract with the USAF’s AFWERX Agility Prime programme.
Through the agreement, Xwing will operate autonomous flight trials via its Superpilot flight system over the course of 21 months to advance development of remote operations. The trials will be performed on the Cessna 208B, the same platform Xwing used to first demonstrate an autonomous gate-to-gate flight in 2021. The firm designed their system to be transferrable to other CTOL and VTOL applications, once the system has been validated on the 208B it will expanded to other aircraft.
The US Air Force (USAF) and US Department of Defense (DoD) have set aside a number of key priorities with which companies like Xwing align very well. There is promotion of autonomy and AI for land, sea and air. There is also a priority to develop dual-use technologies (commercial and military use cases). Finally, there is a need for technological development in contested logistics, such as delivering cargo in a conflict zone without putting pilots in harm’s way.
“As you can see we tick a number of boxes among those priorities,” said Marc Piette, founder and CEO at Xwing told Revolution.Aero. “After applying for the SBIR late last year, we were accepted in January and we kicked off tests last month. We will be doing flight tests and exchanging data — a lot of this is to help the Air Force determine best use cases and understand the maturity of the application.”
Xwing’s autonomous technologies include: a fusion of flight control systems, collision avoidance systems, auto braking, auto taxi, and remote operations software to enable autonomous flight. The Phase II SBIR kicked off in April in Northern California. It will provide both organisations with real-world mission data, identify areas for additional development to meet mission specifications, and data on the performance of the onboard detect and avoid perception stack. Tests will take place in different conditions and could even operate occasionally in national airspace.
The work could continue over the 21 month timeframe, as Piette said the USAF are looking to increase the scope of the contract after the first month of tests. “We also become eligible for Phase III typically after 90 days of Phase II. While we don’t have anything to announce there, when you think about about the scope of Phase II a lot of those can convert to Phase III. Which become order of magnitude larger contacts.”
Xwing’s autonomous technology will eventually allow the USAF to remotely operate aircraft for a range of mission-specific purposes, including cargo delivery, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and medevac. Being a part of an AFWERX Agility Prime programme can provide a fast-tracked route to commercial entry and can see products in commercial operation with the military before they are certified. “It can fast-track us,” said Piette. “We’ve got our certification timeline with the FAA, being the first company to go for this with a fully unmanned, standard category aircraft, and it is going to take some time. But this contract can get us to commercialisation even ahead of that on the DoD front.”
Xwing estimate that around 80% of their system is aircraft agnostic with the remaining 20% specific to certain classes and airframes. “The control laws, the types of actuation, the mode of landing for example. For the Cessna Caravan we had to implement all of that and put our own flight control system. In fact, a lot of the vehicles coming online right now are being designed with fly-by-wire systems where the flight control system is already built in. But you still can’t integrate them unmanned in the airspace. So we have our mission management system, communication links, hazard avoidance system and ground control station — all of those things are aircraft agnostic, even across fixed-wing and vertical lift platforms.” There are a few elements which are aircraft or CONOPS (Concept of Operations) specific.