The U.S. Air Force (USAF) has awarded military airworthiness approval for Reliable Robotics’ remotely piloted Cessna 208 Caravan, a single-engine turboprop that the California-based company has retrofitted with an autonomous flight control system. This approval allows Reliable to begin flight-testing the experimental aircraft in collaboration with the USAF, which is interested in developing autonomous flight capabilities for large aircraft such as the KC-135 Stratotanker.
Reliable Robotics is developing its remotely operated aircraft system (ROAS) as a dual-use technology for both defense and commercial applications, including cargo transportation, logistics, and surveillance operations. The company flew its autonomous Caravan with no pilots on board for the first time in December.
“Nothing compares to showcasing how our autonomous flight capabilities will immediately enable new ways for the U.S. Air Force and other departments of the military to lead with innovation, improve safety, and project power across the globe,” said David O’Brien, the company's senior vice president of government solutions.
Reliable Robotics aims to have a supplemental type certificate (STC) for Caravan conversions in hand by 2025. It will initially certify the technology for single-pilot operations, with the enhanced autopilot helping to reduce pilot workload in the cockpit. The FAA accepted the company’s certification plans for that “continuous autopilot engagement system” in July. Company CEO Robert Rose told AIN that he expects a subsequent STC for remotely piloted operations without pilots on board will be approved a year or two after the initial STC.
The U.S. start-up has been engaged with the USAF and its Afwerx innovation unit since 2021 to design, develop, and test autonomous flight capabilities for existing Air Force platforms. Last year the company teamed up with NASA to study and improve the safety of uncrewed aircraft operations in the National Airspace System.
Rival Xwing Also Flies With the Air Force
A few days before Reliable Robotics announced its military airworthiness approval, rival autonomous flight pioneer Xwing flew its own remotely piloted airplane on an autonomous logistics mission for the USAF as part of its work with the new Afwerx Autonomy Prime program.
According to the USAF, Xwing's modified Cessna 208B Grand Caravan picked up some unspecified cargo at March Air Reserve Base near Los Angeles on January 26 and delivered it to McClellan Airfield near San Francisco, demonstrating its autonomous taxi, takeoff, and landing capabilities. Meanwhile, another company called Merlin is developing similar technology and is engaged in flight trials in New Zealand and Alaska.