- Xwing completed a fully automated “gate-to-gate” flight with its self-flying plane.
- Pilots merely monitored the aircraft while it performed maneuvers on its own.
- The technology could revolutionize aviation and cut back on pilot expenses for airlines.
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Xwing, a Bay Area aviation startup, just completed its first “gate-to-gate” autonomous flight with its flagship aircraft, a Cessna Grand Caravan 208B.
All pilots had to do was sit back and monitor while the plane started up, taxied out, took off, flew, landed, taxied back, and shut down all on its own.
The flight took place in February 2021 at Buchanan Field Airport in Concord, California just outside of San Francisco. A pilot was inside the aircraft but merely to watch over the systems, talk to air traffic control, and take over for the automated system if need be.
Another pair of eyes was keeping close watch from Xwing’s “mission control center,” to where data from the aircraft include speed, altitude, pitch, and location was continuously fed.
“Over the past year, our team has made significant advancements in extending and refining our AutoFlight system to seamlessly integrate ground taxiing, take-offs, landings, and flight operations, all supervised from our mission control center via redundant data links,” Marc Piette, chief executive officer and founder of Xwing, said in a statement.
The Grand Caravan is a tried and true aviation workhorse, with Xwing’s model powered by a turboprop Pratt & Whitney PT6A-114A engine offering 675 shaft horsepower.
Its range is around 1,000 nautical miles, enough to fly non-stop from San Francisco to cities like Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Seattle, and even Denver, if conditions allow.
Source: Textron Aviation
And as many as 14 occupants can be carried by the plane.
The Grand Caravan has uses in both the passenger and cargo realm, with Xwing looking to serve the latter.
“As we work to bring our technology to market, I’m particularly looking forward to building out our commercialization strategy to bring consumers and logistics companies the most effective air cargo solutions available,” Jesse Kallman, Xwing’s vice president of commercialization and strategy, said in a statement.
Xwing has joined the worldwide COVID-19 airlift with cargo flights carrying 800 pounds of personal protective equipment to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, performed autonomously from takeoff to landing.
And major cargo carriers already rely on the Grand Caravan for flights. FedEx Express is one of many that uses the aircraft to reach remote communities.
Essential air service carriers, or those that are subsidized by the government to fly to underserved American communities, including Southern Airways Express and Air Choice One also use the Grand Caravan for some flights.
These flights could one day be operated autonomously thanks to Xwing’s technology.
Xwing estimates that cost savings could be in the 20-30% range for an aircraft operator including everything from pilot training and salaries to overnighting expenses.
That doesn’t necessarily mean flights will be completely pilot-free, however, as companies like Airbus have said that their tech is intended to aid onboard pilots rather than replace them completely.
Airbus is also leading the charge towards self-flying planes, having demonstrated successful autonomous taxi, takeoff, and landing maneuvers with an Airbus A350-1000 XWB.
Xwing just announced a total funding raise of $55 million and has been identified by venture capitalists such as Andrew Beebe of Obvious Ventures and Kirsten Bartok of AirFinance as one of the leaders in the autonomous aviation space. The company was operating in stealth until May 2020.