You’ve Never Seen Cessnas Like These Before

Check out a pair of historic flights made using modified Cessnas, a strange new aircraft on sale, and plenty more in this week’s Future of FLYING newsletter.

Reliable automated flight

Reliable Robotics flew a Cessna 208B Caravan with no one on board, taking off from Hollister Municipal Airport (KCVH) in California in November. [Courtesy: Reliable Robotics]

Hello, and welcome to the Future of FLYING newsletter, our weekly look at the biggest stories in emerging aviation technology. From low-altitude drones to high-flying rockets at the edge of the atmosphere, we’ll take you on a tour of the modern flying world to help you make sense of it all.

Now for this week’s top story:

Historic Cargo Flight With Uncrewed Cessna Caravan

(Courtesy: Reliable Robotics)

What happened? You’ve never seen a Cessna like this before—in fact, the world hadn’t, until this week. On Monday, Mountain View, California-based Reliable Robotics released footage of its November flight of a 208B Caravan, modified with its remotely operated aircraft system to fly without a pilot in the cockpit. The company claimed the feat is an aviation first.

How it works: Reliable’s uncrewed, FAA-approved flight—operated remotely from a control center 50 miles away—lasted about 12 minutes. But while the jaunt was relatively brief, it helped validate the firm’s technology, which automates all phases of flight from taxi to takeoff to landing. Control surfaces and engine controls, for example, are adjusted automatically.

A continuous autopilot system equipped with advanced navigation technology prevents common causes of aviation accidents, such as controlled flight into terrain or loss of control in flight. However, redundant voice and data networks allowed the modified Cessna to be commanded remotely. Other models could be equipped with the system too, since it’s aircraft agnostic.

Has automated aviation arrived? Well, not quite. Reliable and other automated flight systems developers still need to certify their tech, but they’re getting closer. The FAA in June accepted Reliable’s formal certification plan, which relies on existing regulations for normal and transport category aircraft and contains no special conditions or exceptions. In addition to test flights with the regulator, the company has demonstrated its system for NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

But it’s looking beyond defense use cases. Reliable plans to start a fully owned Part 135 airline subsidiary for automated commercial cargo flights. It’s also working with ASL Aviation Holdings to automate its fleet of more than 160 aircraft, which service Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

Quick quote: “This milestone accelerates dual-use uncrewed flight opportunities, increasing aviation safety and enabling us to bring a broad range of autonomous military capabilities into denied environments,” said Colonel Elliott Leigh, director of Air Force innovation arm AFWERX and the department’s chief commercialization officer.

My take: Automated flight systems are still in the early stages of development, but there is potential down the line for them to become ubiquitous. Some, such as autolanding, already are. Fully automated flight is another story.

Reliable is working with Textron Aviation and Textron eAviation to convert more Caravans, which are some of the most widely used turboprops in the world. Others such as Xwing and Merlin are building similar tech. But their success will depend on safety. Some believe automated systems will be more effective than pilots at reducing the risk of accidents. For now, though, humans have demonstrated the capacity for safe, routine, commercial flights—and automation simply hasn’t.

The cargo sector, which removes the risk of carrying humans, will likely be the first to adopt automated flight. That’s where Reliable is looking first. Others, who are eyeing the passenger segment, may need to wait on regulations and certification.

In Other News…

Ampaire’s Modified Cessna Breaks Endurance Record

(Courtesy: Ampaire)

What happened? Historic Cessna flights pique your interest? How about another one: A Cessna 337 Skymaster equipped with hybrid-electric propulsion made a 12-hour, 1,375-mile trip. Ampaire, the maker of said propulsion system, believes the feat to be an endurance record. The previous high-water mark? Another Ampaire flight in 2022.

How about hybrid? Impressively, Ampaire’s Electric EEL demonstrator touched down with more than two hours of battery and fuel reserves remaining. That should be reassuring for the company—it claims the EEL offers a greater payload, cuts more emissions, and can be certified faster than hydrogen-powered designs. But hydrogen still has the advantage of range.

Ampaire went with hybrid propulsion because it believes it can take advantage of hydrogen fuel efficiency while weaving in the benefits of an all-electric system. Its designs are projected to reduce emissions less than the latter, but they’ll add greater range and payload while requiring less infrastructure. Plus, Ampaire believes it can certify its flagship model in 2024.

This Strange Aircraft Could Come to Your Local Public Safety Agency

(Courtesy: Lift Aircraft)

What happened? The funky-looking aircraft above is called Hexa—and it’s now on sale. Lift Aircraft, the manufacturer behind the unique, single-seat design, announced it will allocate five aircraft for public safety customers such as police and fire departments, emergency medical services, and first responders. Eventually, it’ll be available for personal use.

Anyone can fly: Lift enters the market with a unique proposition: an aircraft that anyone can learn to fly within an hour. Hexa qualifies as a Part 103 ultralight, which means the FAA doesn’t require a pilot certification to fly it. That may be a boon for public safety agencies, which could fly it for firefighting, supply drops, or air ambulance services without needing a licensed pilot.

Lift’s vision is for customers to one day walk into a vertiport, train for less than an hour, and leave flying their own personal eVTOL. The company actually has an agreement with helicopter tour operator Charm Aviation to bring Hexa to downtown Manhattan. But public safety customers will get the first crack at it.

And a Few More Headlines:

  • NASA’s Voyager 1 probe can't phone home, and it could take engineers weeks to fix the problem.
  • Sean Cassidy stepped down as head of safety for Amazon’s drone arm, where he served as its main liaison to the FAA.
  • The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will collaborate with Google to decarbonize aviation.
  • Textron Aviation announced a carbon offset program for its turbine aircraft customers.
  • Air taxi startup AIBot chose Honeywell to develop the flight controls for its autonomous eVTOL design.

Spotlight on…

Maeve Aerospace

[Courtesy: Maeve Aerospace]

Dutch manufacturer Maeve Aerospace broke onto the scene in 2021 with its concept for a 44-passenger, all-electric regional jet. This week it came out with an even more ambitious design.

Maeve on Monday unveiled the M80: a hybrid-electric model for up to 80 passengers that it says fuses the performance of a jet, the efficiency and economics of a turboprop, and the emissions reduction of an all-electric aircraft. That combination is an attractive proposition—if the company can make it happen.

The M80 is scheduled for arrival in 2031, which should give Maeve plenty of time to refine its unique architecture. The secret sauce is the aircraft’s engine: It runs on electric battery packs and an aviation fuel of the operator’s choice, including power-to-liquid (PtL) and other forms of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Combined with a redesigned airframe, the engine can reduce emissions to near zero and fuel burn by 40 percent—which, according to Maeve, will keep trip costs low.

Plus, airports won’t need to install electric infrastructure to welcome the M80. The aircraft’s batteries are only needed for takeoff and climb. In cruise, an altitude optimized thermal engine takes over, which allows the aircraft to charge its own batteries during descent, Maeve said.

On the Horizon…

Will the FAA ever be reauthorized? The answer is almost certainly yes, but it may not happen soon.

On Tuesday, federal lawmakers extended the deadline for reauthorization to March 8, just a few months after it was stretched to December 31. The second extension will keep the agency funded into the new year. However, industry stakeholders are getting antsy about the long-term outlook. Reauthorization would secure the FAA funding for the next half-decade, but it would also introduce new standards for air traffic control, pilot retirement, and advanced air mobility (AAM). For now, though, Senators continue to quibble over certain provisions.

Simultaneously, lawmakers are working to bolster American defenses against rogue drones. The State Department this week hosted its first counter-drone policy forum workshop, which brought together stakeholders from the governments of the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Attendees shared their countries’ respective goals and challenges. For the U.S., that could be useful—according to reports, federal authority to down drones expired last month.

Also in the works is a bipartisan bill called the NASA Talent Exchange Program Act. The legislation would assign NASA employees to temporary aerospace industry positions, and vice versa, creating new linkages between the regulator and other stakeholders.

Across the pond, we’ve got a trio of updates from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Perhaps the most notable is the launch of an Innovative Air Mobility Hub for stakeholders to exchange information on technologies such as air taxis and drones.

The European regulator also published what should become a key document for eVTOL aircraft firms: the first standards (and limitations) on eVTOL noise. Since electric air taxis are expected to fly over people in crowded urban areas at low altitude, keeping noise to a minimum will be crucial. Among other provisions, EASA will require operators to measure noise during takeoff, overflight, approach, and hover.

And finally, there’s been a leadership shakeup at the top of the agency. EASA named Luc Tytgat as acting executive director in September following the departure of Patrick Ky. But this week it picked Florian Guillermet, director of France’s air navigation services provider, as a permanent replacement.

Mark Your Calendars

Each week, I’ll be running through a list of upcoming industry events. Here are a few conferences to keep an eye on:

Tweet of the Week

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I want to hear your questions, comments, concerns, and criticisms about everything in the modern flying space, whether they’re about a new drone you just bought or the future of space exploration. Reach out to or tweet me @jack_daleo with your thoughts.

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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