Uncrewed Cessna cargo plane takes to Californian skies
A Cessna 208B Caravan kitted out with an autonomous flight system from Reliable Robotics recently took to the skies north of Hollister in California, without any humans onboard – though the aircraft was supervised remotely by a pilot on the ground.
This is not the first time that Reliable Robotics has taken an unmanned Cessna to the air. Its autonomous flight technology – which includes avionics, software, mechanisms, comms, remote command interfaces and a backup system – allowed a remotely-piloted Cessna 172 Skyhawk to taxi, take off and land in September 2019, marking "the first time a privately funded company operated a passenger airplane of this type with no pilot on board over a populated region."
That Textron Aviation aircraft is designed to carry four passengers. For the latest test flight, which got the FAA seal of approval in June, Reliable opted to try something much larger in the shape of the Cessna 208B Caravan.
The modified aircraft was rolled out of its hangar at Hollister Municipal Airport on November 21, the cockpit was emptied of all human presence and the autonomous flight system took over, at the command of remote pilot Danah Tommalieh from the company's operations center 50 miles (80.5 km) away.
Reliable says that "all phases of operation including taxi, takeoff and landing" are fully automated, and that the 12-minute test flight went without a hitch.
"This is supposed to be a boring, uneventful thing, like a normal airplane, and that’s what we got," Reliable's CEO, Robert Rose is reported to have said. "We spent years preparing to ensure that there would be no surprises."
Development continues apace, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the military is showing a keen interest, with the most recent of a series of contracts signed with the US Air Force designed to explore remote piloting options for future multi-engine aircraft "for cargo logistics, aerial refueling and other missions."
You can see highlights of the Caravan's flight in the video below.