Whether you’re a fan of them or not, autonomous or remotely piloted aircraft systems will likely become a key segment in aviation. But to eventually remove the pilot from the cockpit in some aircraft—or drastically reduce their role—it will be the FAA’s job to determine which systems are safe and reliable.
As part of that effort, the agency recently hosted a weeklong series of trials of Mountain View, California-based Reliable Robotics’ continuous autopilot solution. The testing and simulation regimen included three flights of the company’s modified Cessna 208 Caravan, which lasted several hours. The demonstrations should give the FAA insight into the integration of remotely piloted aircraft in congested airspace.
“Collaborating with the FAA on demonstrations like this will help enable the future of mobility and the evolution of our airspace to accommodate new aircraft systems,” said Davis Hackenberg, vice president of government partnerships at Reliable. “Watching our system successfully operate in a live test environment is exciting, and we are proud to help pave the way for future integration of large uncrewed aircraft.”
The series of flight tests and simulations demonstrated Reliable’s ability to reroute the aircraft, change speeds on a dime, and fly under simulated weather conditions by updating flight plan routing. An onboard test pilot observed each flight. The system was also tested in simulated Class B airspace, typically defined as airspace surrounding the nation’s “busiest” airports.
Reliable shared aircraft telemetry from the company’s control center through third-party service provider OneSky, which transmitted the data to the FAA’s NextGen Integration and Evaluation Capability (NIEC) research lab.
FAA air traffic controllers also participated in the testing, soaking up valuable insights to bring back to the NextGen program office as it develops its Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Concept of Operations 2.0. The living document is essentially a blueprint for future UAM services.
The demonstrations were part of the FAA’s UAM Airspace Management Demonstration (UAMD), which aims to showcase emerging urban and advanced air mobility (AAM) concepts to plot future operations. Trials were funded by the agency through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and took place at Reliable’s control center in Mountain View.
“The flight tests conducted by Reliable highlighted the ability for new aircraft systems to interact with third-party service providers and seamlessly integrate into future airspace environments, and provided critical data for future operations,” said Diana Liang, enterprise portfolio manager at the FAA.
The agency formally accepted Reliable’s Project-Specific Certification Plan (PSCP) for its continuous autopilot engagement system in June. That makes it one of a handful of firms that have made material progress toward type certification of a fully automated flight control system, though it will have a few more significant hoops to jump through before it gets there.
The Flight Path Ahead
Reliable’s autopilot system automates all phases of flight, from taxi to takeoff and landing. It uses redundant hardware and software to automate flight control surfaces and engine controls, as well as redundant voice and data networks for secure air-to-ground connectivity, which enables remote aircraft command and radio management.
The solution includes electromechanically actuated brakes with autoland capability. It also integrates aircraft with airborne detection technology for traffic and terrain avoidance. A precision navigation system, meanwhile, uses sensor fusion techniques common in spacecraft design to bring together inputs from multiple sensors and create a single, unified model.
An advanced autopilot flight management system ties everything together with a simplified user interface, enabling remote supervision of all phases of flight in all operating conditions.
The system is designed and will be certified for a wide variety of aircraft and applications. But the company intends to start by retrofitting Cessna Caravans and launching automated air cargo operations in the U.S.
So far, Reliable conducted flight demonstrations in May for the Air Force through a contract to study the automation of large, multiengine jets. It also has a Phase III Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) agreement to demonstrate the performance of remotely piloted aircraft for the department.
That campaign followed prior flights with NASA as part of the agency’s AAM National Campaign. These included detect-and-avoid encounter flights of Cessna 172 and Cessna 208 aircraft to help NASA validate the use of existing FAA primary surveillance radars.
Reliable is working to commercialize its technology for Part 23 cargo and Part 25 passenger aircraft. It’s currently going through the process defined in Part 21 and FAA Order 8110.4C for certifying new aircraft, engines, and propellers and is seeking Part 23 supplemental type certification. That means it will certify to well-known airworthiness requirements for normal category airplanes. This is similar to the process used currently for autothrottle and autoland STC development in piloted aircraft.
Notably, the company’s design certification plan will not require special conditions or exemptions. Its solution will not be treated as a new type design—instead, it will leverage existing regulations for normal and transport category aircraft, modifying them slightly.
Reliable is seeking approval for operations across the entire coterminous U.S. plus Alaska, with no exemptions, special conditions, or equivalent level of safety findings. Recently, it’s made a few key executive appointments to improve its chances.
Hackenberg joined the company in May after nearly two decades with NASA. There, he served as AAM Mission Manager and spent many years leading a project to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace system, among other tasks.
Reliable also brought on Lee Moak and Steve Alterman as strategic advisors in December. Moak served on the Department of Transportation’s Advanced Aviation Advisory Committee and the Postal Service Board of Governors; Alterman led the Cargo Airline Association for four decades as president.
Another important addition was Scott O’Brien as vice president of legislative affairs in October. O’Brien was previously senior director of public policy and advocacy for the National Business Aviation Association and worked on legislative strategy for the organization’s AAM Roundtable.
Other appointments include a veteran engineer of Virgin Orbit, Lockheed Martin, and Paragon Labs as chief engineer, and the former leader of remotely piloted aircraft system integration efforts for General Atomics as vice president of UAS integration.
Reliable recently provided input on the House FAA Reauthorization Bill, lauding the legislation for giving the FAA more authority and resources to advance certification of autonomous flight systems. The bill calls for the creation of an FAA Office of Innovation that will work directly with agency leadership to support innovation, as well as incentives for broader ADS-B usage to prevent midair collisions.
We will see if these provisions remain in the legislation by September 30, the deadline for FAA reauthorization. But if they do, Reliable’s credibility will be on the rise.