Reliable Robotics Earns Military Airworthiness for Remotely Piloted Caravan
Jan 30, 2024
A company that just broke ground on automated flight technology has been cleared for takeoff by the U.S. military.
Reliable Robotics, which in November completed the first flight of a Cessna 208B Caravan with no one on board, received military airworthiness approval to begin flight testing and operational missions of remotely piloted aircraft for the U.S. Air Force. The company will demonstrate its dual-use automated flight capabilities for military use cases such as cargo missions.
Reliable’s remotely operated aircraft system (ROAS) completed an airworthiness assessment comprising a comprehensive safety analysis, maintenance and operational evaluations, and testing of its automated flight tech.
The approval is the latest milestone in the company’s Phase III Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract with AFWERX, the innovation arm of the Air Force. That collaboration began in 2021. Since then, Reliable has conducted a demonstration flight at California’s Travis Air Force Base and been contracted by AFWERX to study the possibility of automating large multiengine jets.
Now, the firm is one of only a few in the emerging aviation space with military airworthiness under its belt. Beta Technologies received the first such approval for an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) design in 2021. Lift Aircraft, maker of the Hexa personal eVTOL, nabbed one the following year. Other manufacturers of novel tech, such as Archer Aviation, also maintain relationships with AFWERX and the Department of Defense.
“Our AFWERX partners are developing exciting automation technologies through robust engineering and flight test campaigns,” said Hank “Hog” Griffiths, AFWERX airworthiness and test lead. “The technology is maturing rapidly and this airworthiness approval for a certified aircraft retrofitted with an autonomous flight system provides significant opportunities for the military.”
ROAS allows pilots to safely operate aircraft from the ground, which could alleviate the sting of pilot shortages. Some even argue automated flight tech could one day be safer than crewed flight.
Reliable is developing the aircraft agnostic system to automate all phases of flight—from taxi to takeoff to landing—for any design. That includes cargo aircraft designed for payloads north of 3,000 pounds.
The company has an entrenched relationship with Textron Aviation and Textron eAviation—the manufacturer’s sustainable flight arm—to retrofit ROAS onto additional Caravans. Textron has delivered more than 3,000 of the aircraft, making it one of the most widely used turboprops in the world.
ROAS’ continuous autopilot system relies on advanced navigation and multiple redundant layers to reach a level of reliability equal to crewed flight, Reliable claims. It includes automatic braking and is positioned as being able to prevent both controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) and loss of control in flight (LOC-I), according to the company.
Redundant hardware and software automate the flight control surfaces and engine controls. Similarly redundant voice and data networks, meanwhile, enable remote command and radio management for pilots.
“Nothing compares to showcasing how our autonomous flight capabilities will immediately enable new ways for the U.S. Air Force and other departments of the military to lead with innovation, improve safety, and project power across the globe,” said former Air Force Major General David O’Brien, senior vice president of government solutions at Reliable.
But Reliable is looking beyond defense use cases. ROAS—capable of automating aircraft with useful loads as high as 3,000 pounds or the ability to take off from shorter runways—could one day enable time-sensitive deliveries to locations currently served by piloted Caravans. In 2022, the company announced plans to launch a fully owned Part 135 airline subsidiary led by former Ameriflight executives.
In addition to its collaboration with the Air Force, Reliable has also demonstrated automated flight capabilities for NASA and the FAA, the latter of which formally accepted the firm’s certification plan in June. The company capped off 2023 with its historic cargo flight, keeping an uncrewed Caravan in the air for 12 minutes.