The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Xwing's Grand Caravans Join Covid Vaccine Distribution Effort

Autonomous flight technology pioneer Xwing is supporting the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines in the U.S. with its fleet of modified Cessna 208B Grand Caravan single-engine turboprop aircraft. The company started piloted commercial cargo flights on December 1 after receiving FAA approval for its Part 135 charter operation in late November.

Xwing’s crews have been delivering vaccines to Holbrook, Arizona, from where they are distributed to the nearby Navajo Nation Native American reservation. Its aircraft are carrying the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which has to be packed in dry ice. Previously, the company delivered 800 pounds of personal protective equipment and school supplies to the Navajo Nation.

The California-based start-up has been conducting test flights since July 2020 as it prepares to seek approval for operations with its autonomous (non-piloted) Autoflight System, which has been in development for four years. It aims to be cleared to begin autonomous commercial flights in 2022.

“We are taking a progressive approach to the roll-out of autonomous technology,” Xwing founder and CEO Marc Piette told FutureFlight. “We’re starting with regular aircraft and adding more and more equipment, mainly sensors, to collect data along piloted routes.”

The Xwing engineering team is using this operational data to “train” the algorithms it is developing for Autoflight and to support preparations for certification.

Getting into the air freight business also has allowed Xwing to get a complete understanding of how ground operations would interface with autonomous operations. “It also means we can build a track record [as an operator] and generate some income,” said Piette.

Originally, Xwing had planned to start its own Part 135 commercial operation from scratch, but earlier this year FAA informed the company that it could take around two years to get a certificate due to a backlog in the approval process. So instead, the company acquired a small operator based in San Antonio, Texas, and has built its new operation on this foundation.

The fleet consists of four Grand Caravans. One of these is entirely dedicated to experimental test flights and the other three are flying commercially from a base in Arizona. The company is flying for one of the top three U.S. express delivery groups and it intends to expand its route network, exploiting the Caravan’s ability to land at small airfields with a payload of 4,000 pounds.

Covid vaccines are just part of the loads the Xwing aircraft are carrying, but they are the most challenging and required a hazardous materials license. Capacity on flights is limited by restrictions on how much dry ice can be in the cabin to avoid exposing flight crew to dangerous fumes.

According to Piette, major delivery groups like Fedex and UPS are capacity constrained in dealing with the significant increase in online shopping during the Covid crisis. In his view, the shipping industry will not be able to meet this rising demand in a cost-effective way if they are dependent on piloted aircraft, arguing that autonomous aircraft will be far more flexible in terms of how and when they can operate, and with a three-fold increase in productivity that will reduce operating costs by between 20 and 30 percent.

Xwing’s business plan calls for it to operate autonomous aircraft on routes of up to 500 miles. Initially, these flights will be conducted with an operator on the ground, mainly to handle interactions with air traffic controllers.

The start-up has been developing its Autoflight System for four years. It consists of detect-and-avoid sensors to analyze airborne and ground-based hazards and navigation and control software to generate optimal flight paths, interface with ATC, monitor the health of aircraft systems, and deal with operational contingencies.