Xwing Awarded Military Airworthiness for Autonomous Cessna Caravan

Xwing and fellow autonomous flight provider Reliable Robotics are now among a handful of emerging aviation firms with military airworthiness approvals.

Xwing autonomous Air Force flight

Air Force personnel stand in front of Xwing’s N101XW aircraft, a Cessna Grand Caravan modified for autonomous flight. [Courtesy: Xwing]

Autonomous flight technology will be deployed by the U.S. military before making its way to the commercial sector.

AFWERX, the innovation arm of the U.S. Air Force, has awarded autonomy technology provider Xwing military airworthiness for its self-flying Cessna 208B Grand Caravan in the form of a Military Flight Release (MFR), allowing it to perform cargo missions for the Air Force in unrestricted airspace.

The approval designates Xwing as a contractor-owned-and-operated public aircraft operation (PAO) and is the first under that designation for Autonomy Prime, the autonomous flight division of AFWERX.

After receiving airworthiness, Xwing's autonomous Caravan transported time-sensitive cargo during the Air Force’s weeklong Agile Flag 24-1 Joint Force exercise. Over the course of daily flights—which covered about 2,800 nm, 22 hours of flight time, and eight public and military airports—it demonstrated the ability to integrate autonomous aircraft into the national airspace system. Agile Flag ran from January 22 to February 4.

“Achieving an Air Force MFR certification is a momentous milestone, removing the barrier to transition and unlocking key testing and experimentation opportunities,” said Kate Brown, deputy branch chief of AFWERX Autonomy Prime. “Agile Flag was an opportunity to showcase autonomous light cargo logistics and demonstrate operational relevance and increased technical readiness.”

The exercise included the first autonomous logistics mission for the Air Force, flying from March Air Reserve Base (KRIV) outside Los Angeles to McClellan Airfield at Sacramento McClellan Airport (KMCC) in California. The autonomous aircraft also visited California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base (KVBG), Meadows Field Airport (KBFL), and Fresno Yosemite International Airport (KFAT).

Xwing’s autonomous Cessna Grand Caravan receives fuel before taking off at McClellan Airfield in Sacramento, California, on January 27. [Courtesy: Matthew Clouse/U.S. Air Force]

“Our technology has proven effective over hundreds of successful autonomous flights,” said Craig Milliard, Xwing flight test manager, who remotely supervised the flights from a ground control station at Sacramento McClellan Airport. “This exercise gave us the opportunity to stretch the operational envelope into new environments, day and night, with real-world cargo, proving that we can effectively complete Air Force mission objectives.”

The Exercise

Xwing operates N101XW: a modified Grand Caravan with a 41-foot length, 15-foot height, 52-foot wingspan, and maximum payload of 3,000 pounds. Since its first autonomous flight in 2020, N101XW has flown more than 500 autonomous hours across 250 missions. According to the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), data collected from those tests show the aircraft can fly about 1,000 nm with 1,200 pounds of cargo.

Following “rigorous safety and technical assessments,” the Air Force awarded Xwing the MFR. With it, the company is authorized to deliver official Air Force cargo with automated taxis, takeoffs, and landings, to both military and civilian airfields.

The goal of Agile Flag was to show how autonomous flight could deliver critical, time-sensitive cargo quickly and cost effectively. The Air Force gauged how autonomy could serve as a “force multiplier and risk mitigator” for the military’s agile combat employment (ACE) concept. ACE involves the dispersal of aircraft and equipment between major military hubs and smaller airfields to improve resilience and survivability.

The exercise brought together Xwing, fellow autonomous flight provider Reliable Robotics, and the Air Force Air Combat Command (ACC) and Air Mobility Command (AMC) to evaluate the technology for ACE applications. According to the Air Force, a core component of the strategy is the ability to deliver to multiple unsurveyed locations—or contested, degraded, or operationally limited (CDO) environments—with little or no ground support, on a moment’s notice.

Xwing and its ground control station arrived at McClellan Airfield, the headquarters for Agile Flag, on January 26, where airmen watched autonomous takeoffs and landings of its modified Cessna through a live feed.

But when airmen in the 4th Fighter Wing from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, needed to transport equipment from March ARB to McClellan, the demonstration became an operational exercise. Personnel loaded the equipment onto Xwing’s autonomous Caravan and completed the flight that day.

Airmen load weather equipment into Xwing's autonomous Cessna Grand Caravan during Agile Flag 24-1 at McClellan Airfield in Sacramento, California, on January 27. [Courtesy: Matthew Clouse/U.S. Air Force]

“The point of AFWERX is to get emerging and operationally relevant technologies into the hands of warfighters,” said Ian Clowes, stakeholder engagement lead for AFWERX Prime. “So I coordinated with the 4th Fighter Wing for nearly a year, and the initial pitch was for us to show up and make sure we were not interfering with the exercise. But plans changed, and we got to demonstrate the capability in an operational environment.”

Throughout the week, the Air Force assigned Xwing cargo missions based on real-time logistics needs, such as the delivery of sensitive weather equipment and other critical cargo. The exercise required it to fly through the congested Los Angeles basin, where the Caravan complied with air traffic controller instructions and integrated with heavy traffic at March ARB.

AFWERX said the aircraft delivered critical parts faster than conventional counterparts and reduced the number of requests for traditional, heavy-lift aircraft. These, according to Xwing, are two key advantages autonomous flight brings to the table for military commanders.

“This technology is a game-changer because the Air Force could fly in contested areas without the loss of life, and it's much less expensive than using traditional cargo aircraft,” said Master Sergeant Brian Crea, Air Force 3rd Wing director of innovation.

“We saw firsthand during Agile Flag that the use of Xwing’s autonomous aircraft eliminated the need to fly a larger aircraft such as a [Lockheed Martin] C-130 to deliver critical cargo to the warfighter on short notice,” said Maxime Gariel, president, co-founder, and chief technology officer of Xwing. “When you fly missions autonomously, you operate with the speed and efficiency required for dispersed ACE operations, delivering cargo and personnel at a much lower cost and risk.”

Autonomy on the Rise?

Xwing’s participation in Agile Flag is part of its recently awarded Phase III Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract with AFWERX, a continuation of the Phase II contract it obtained in May.

Autonomy Prime, with which Xwing worked over the course of the exercise, is a new technology program within AFWERX that partners with the private sector to accelerate testing and deliver new solutions to the military.

During Agile Flag, Autonomy Prime also collaborated with Reliable Robotics—which, like Xwing, retrofits Cessna Caravans with automated flight systems—through the company’s own Phase III SBIR agreement. Its dual-use control station landed at McClellan on January 30. Within minutes, AFWERX said, the system was ready to remotely operate self-flying aircraft at Hollister Municipal Airport (KCVH) more than 120 miles away.

With Agile Flag now wrapped up, Autonomy Prime will collect data to gauge the effectiveness of autonomous logistics aircraft in an ACE construct. Those results will then be analyzed and briefed to Air Force leadership.

“This demonstration was the first step in showcasing how autonomy and light cargo logistics can be leveraged in an ACE construct,” said Brown. “Moving forward, Autonomy Prime is continuing to investigate integration into future exercises to further refine concept of operations and use case. In parallel, Autonomy Prime is working with requirements owners and vendors to inform future requirements.”

Autonomous flight systems are steadily progressing toward certification, with a couple of key firsts in recent months.

In addition to Xwing’s milestone autonomous logistics mission for the Air Force, Reliable in December completed a historic cargo flight. The demonstration, conducted with FAA approval, marked the first flight of a remotely piloted Caravan with no one on board.

Xwing is also working closely with the regulator. It claims to own the first “standard” FAA uncrewed aircraft system (UAS) certification project, which aims to meet the full airworthiness safety requirements for passenger aircraft.

Both companies intend to eventually move beyond Cessna Caravans and retrofit other aircraft, but they will begin with small cargo models. Reliable has a partnership with FedEx, while Xwing is collaborating with United Parcel Service.

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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