Pilots On Board To Develop Pilotless Technology


A California company is taking a novel approach to autonomous aviation by making human pilots an integral part of its development. While many of the more advanced drone hopefuls have created elaborate clean-sheet designs, San Francisco startup Xwing is heaping new technology into a proven design with room for a human to act as pilot in command. “This is the fastest way to get to commercial uncrewed flight,” company founder Marc Piette told The Wall Street Journal. Xwing is equipping a fleet of Grand Caravans used for routine cargo flights with gear to gather data on everything from navigation to emergency procedures. Assuming it all works, the company hopes to have pilotless Caravans flying cargo long before the first clean-sheet designs are certified.

Piette told the WSJ that ground-based pilots will also be involved in the initial phase, handling ATC calls and monitoring performance. Once all the kinks are worked out, the company hopes the first pilotless Caravans will operate over water or wilderness sooner rather than later. The Journal story says that could happen within a couple of years. It’s anyone’s guess when this kind of autonomous aviation can mix it up with regular traffic but if and when that happens, the technology is scalable. It could be adapted for other already-certified designs for different capabilities and missions.

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. You can’t evolve your way to autonomy. It’s completely – conceptually – different from even the most-sophisticated humans-in-the-loop automation.

  2. While the AI operated autonomous flight is different than human operated flight, the purpose and outcomes are similar if not identical. AI operated flight offers some benefits much as robots offer benefits to performing certain operations. Garmin’s “auto land” is a system that offers a glimpse of what is possible.
    As AI systems continue to evolve, their role in all sorts of procedures will probably increase. I think that this company’s approach is a good example of framing the introduction of AI systems as an integration with or complement to human operation, rather than conceiving AI systems as a competition between human and AI systems.