Air Force Studies Autonomous Cargo Jets


The Air Force has awarded a contract to Silicon Valley firm Reliable Robotics to study the feasibility of flying its biggest iron autonomously. The company will look at whether it makes sense to fly multi-engine jet cargo planes from gate to gate with a remote pilot monitoring from the ground. For each end of the flight, the company is also looking at having the planes loaded and unloaded with robots, too. It’s also looking at making the technology available to commercial aviation. “Remotely piloted aircraft will enable the Air Force to increase mission tempo worldwide and leverage a certifiable commercial solution for defense industry needs at fractional costs and extend aircraft capabilities,” Reliable Robotics said in its Feb. 8 announcement.

The system will use “continuous autopilot engagement” for all phases of flight and all ground phases, too. “Higher precision navigation, sophisticated flight planning capabilities and more robust flight controls better manage aircraft and environmental conditions and improve safety with or without onboard crew,” the company said. The company has already gained certification basis for the system in a Cessna Caravan and says the general application of the technology will increase flight safety. “Once certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, Reliable’s system will reduce the occurrence of common causes of fatal aviation accidents, such as controlled flight into terrain and loss of control,” the company said.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. “Higher precision navigation, sophisticated flight planning capabilities and more robust flight controls better manage aircraft and environmental conditions and improve safety with or without onboard crew,” this is called hyperbole. IMPROVE SAFETY? We love technology don’t we. See related news story of Tesla crashing into parked Fire Truck, one dead one serious.

    • Roger, that sentence set off my B.S. meter also. What Reliable Robotics is really saying: “We’re going to pay ourselves millions of dollars and write a bunch of ‘feel good’ ‘hyperbole’ white papers.” 💸

      Reliable Robotics will probably use ChatCPT to write the white papers besides. I just want to see how robots are going to change fuel nozzles, filters, oil, inspections and any other routine maintenance.

      • Hey, if do use AI to write their marketing, then they are just being consistent.

        Besides, I for one welcome the wisdom of our new robot overlords, so they have no need to put me in a gulag. 🤣😂

  2. Unfortunately it won’t just be a Tesla, it’s occupant, and a fire truck on the line. Image the carnage of a C-17 loaded with munitions going down in a major metro area due to a “software glitch”.

    • Yep. These aircraft return from the “combat zone” to bases in Germany, Italy, and Spain before they head back again. Will these host countries (and others under the flight path) even allow these flights to take place? And how will these countries react when the first one crashes? I’d leave the pilot’s seats in for now.

      • Refer to the recent articles on one pilot tankers due to ongoing and future shortages, along with the current admins emphasis on feel good, woke, equity inclusion as being primary efforts in the new and increasing understaffed military. Action – reaction.

  3. And what happens if the GPS satellites get goofy? Without land based navigation aids as a backup, things might get a bit compromised, especially in IMC, when any type of onboard
    cameras, even if infared rated are available. Unless they have some sort of super accurate inertial sensors that can navigate without any external input, this system doesn’t seem to be capable of flying…literally and figuratively.

    • I suspect the C17 does have good accurate inertial sensors, along with a terrain-mapping radar system in the nose. Maybe not like the F-111 for nap-of-the-earth attack runs, but good enough for transport duty.

      If we ARE going to explore automated flight, the military seems like a good place to start. It’s already a high risk environment, and they have experience with experimental operations. Most of our air navigation procedures (starting with NDB approaches, and even IFR flying itself) came out of military missions.

    • No terrain mapping that is considered a navigation source.

      Standard Laser Ring IRUs, good to get over the airport or runway, but not to landing precision.

  4. Lemme see if I have this right … the FAA is gonna run remote towers with cameras to potentially land airplanes without pilots. Imagine the Sully flight w/o Sully aboard. Have these people gone mad? I’ll say it again … what’s wrong with using flying sergeants if pilots are so hard to find. The USAF already has trained around 100 of them for the drones …

  5. Pilotsd are dumbasses but I won’t get in an airplane or stand underneath or near one that has no pilots. The only bigger dumbasses are the engineers, management and sales types trying to convince the public that pilotless aircraft are agood idea.

    Count me out. There is too much at stake to leave the flying to “Hal”.

  6. As is typical for “endeavors” of this sort, the statements issued by the vendor are phrased in MarketingSpeak. Sorry, but for clarification, readers will need more. I really, really hope the USAF wants more as well.

  7. When Air Force 1 and government executive aircraft are being flown autonomously for a few years, with no incidents, I may consider it for myself!

  8. I remember many years ago, I think it was Boeing that showed a mockup of a 737 with the cockpit in the BACK of the plane. Obviously, that didn’t “fly”. Anything that is flying autonomously will be able to be compromised electronically. There’s nothing better than actual eyes when it comes to situational awareness. Not saying humans are perfect, but catching something out of the corner of your eye or other things sensors won’t/can’t pick up. The one comment about the Tesla crashing into the firetruck is very relevant. What happens when an self driving truck has an accident? I drove a rig for several years. Trust me, unless you are running on I-90 across the top of the western US, I doubt it will be feasible. I can see the lawyers lining up already. No thanks to a large or even smaller autonomous aircraft.

    • “Anything that is flying autonomously will be able to be compromised electronically.”

      EVERYTHING you wanted to know about autonomous flight can be summed up by that one sentence: and it bears repeating! Good job!!

      Who the heck is running MY USAF ?

  9. What is probably on the horizon are single pilot ops with a ground “support pilot” watching over multiple flights. Why? Money.

    • Yeah, those greedy Air Force types are trying to get rich. Wait, what?

      Money is a good thing. Greed is a bad thing. Greed existed before money, and will persist without it. Yes, USAF officers often grow to be too careerist, but I don’t think they are the truly greedy types.

      We are likely not the best people to figure out why young people prefer not to be pilots. Many of us love flying, so there’s going to be a disconnect.

  10. “The Air Force has awarded a contract to Silicon Valley firm Reliable Robotics” Here we go again. It will be nonstop… Got to laugh about this one! There’s nothing more ridiculous than this idea of “safety” applied to a complex system of a “flying BOMB”. Oh, yea! it’s the greedy money thing…

  11. Since we already have proven systems that handle fully autonomous flight to zero-zero landing at a properly equipped airport, presumably that’s the type of endpoints being discussed. Doubtful there’s much consideration yet being given to dispatching an uncrewed C-17 to some unequipped dirt strip somewhere.

    That being the case feasibility rests much more on social-political considerations than on hardware, so initially approaching it within the military context makes sense.

  12. As a former soldier, I find the idea of having necessities arrive where needed without risk of life a good idea. I suspect, if the USAF is having issues finding pilots, eliminating the need is a reasonable reaction.

    I think the picture of a huge plane chosen for the story is likely warping the message. If the contractor is starting with a Cessna, perhaps the Air Force will start with smaller planes also. The amount of resources involved in the safety of a C17 flight would likely justify a human crew in almost every flight.

    More likely we might see a fleet of those new Cessna twins being developed to serve forward air fields and later maturing into a solution for Fed Ex or similar.

    • You would think so, but the article specifically states that the contract is for “large, multi-engine jets”.

  13. With all the negative comments her, you’d think this spells “aeronautical armageddon”, or something.

    Wait, what??

    But yep, it’s coming sooner or later. Stop saying “it’s impossible” — because it is. And it’ll start first with the overseas freighters. I think Fed Ex has already jumped on it. So don’t be a “Luddite.”

    Now, back to your regularly scheduled broadcast.

  14. Yall seem to get quite emotional about this topic. Which proves why it is such a good idea. The other article today talks about a 2 captains on an ATR crashing a perfectly good airplane and 71 pax. How many crashes are pilot induced ? Runway incursion at JFK could have been a bad one. Look in the mirror: you are human. The military have been flying all kinds of unmanned craft for years now, so they will know a thing or 2 about it. Also : unions strongly object single-pilot ops, so voila : you reap what you sow. Imho FAA and pilots have brought this upon ourselves through lack of vision and innovation. I repeat : my drone has better avionics than many an airliner and most of the GA fleet. The question is not : will this be perfect ? Rather : will it be better than we have today ? Before you answer : go over all of last years crashes and think about all those poor souls killed by their pilots.

    • Thumbs up. We’re looking at the Nirvana fallacy, variously attributed to Churchill as “Perfection is the enemy of the good”, or similarly to Voltaire, or to an Italian proverb.