Autonomous aviation company Xwing is a step closer to certification of its ‘Superpilot’ technology – and to launching pilotless cargo operations.

The California-based start-up said on 6 April it has submitted a project specific certification plan (PSCP) to the Federal Aviation Administration, “which would allow the company to start operating 100% unmanned commercial cargo flights upon certification”.

The application makes Xwing’s unmanned aerial system (UAS) the first to be assigned FAA resources for a standard category airworthiness certificate, the company says. Though designed for cargo operations, the Superpilot system will be benchmarked against current safety standards for passenger aircraft. 

Xwing Cessna-c-Xwing

Source: Xwing

“Once certified, Xwing could open up access to regional autonomous aviation and optimise regional cargo deliveries for smaller cities and rural areas across the US,” Xwing says.

The California-based start-up has for several years been working toward FAA certification of its autonomous flight technology. Xwing runs a Part 135 cargo operation, making some 400 piloted flights monthly on behalf of UPS with a fleet of Cessna 208B Grand Caravans. The company is working to transition its fleet to “fully remote cargo operations”.

Since successfully demonstrating the first fully autonomous gate-to-gate cargo flight in April 2021, Xwing has logged hundreds of flight hours using its pilotless technology. The Superpilot system is designed to integrate into already type-certificated aircraft, with the goal of introducing uncrewed operations within the existing air traffic control (ATC) system as quickly as possible.

“One of the challenges in certifying unmanned flight is really the integration point with air traffic control,” Marc Piette, Xwing’s founder and chief executive, told FlightGlobal in February. “The easiest and quickest way to do this – and to get through [a] certification programme – is to take an existing aircraft and have the FAA focus on the incremental changes to that type-certified aircraft.”

Another challenge, Piette says, is anticipating what could go wrong “and all the contingencies when things start failing… You have to design your system with that in mind”. 

One area of concern is how autonomous aircraft will interact with “uncooperative traffic” that is not communicating with ATC. “It could be a crop duster without a radio, for example,” Piette says. “How do you make sure you’re handling all these edge cases?”

Another is the possibility of the aircraft losing satellite connections during a critical flight stage such as final approach. Xwing is developing a vision-based system guided by wing-mounted cameras and alogorithms that segment images to identify runways and obstacles, in addition to the global positioning system (GPS). 

”We developed technology to be able to increase the integrity of that GPS signal,” Piette says. “So, if you’re losing a couple of satellites, your GPS error might be off by 10 metres or more, but you can still correct for that and go all the way to the ground.” 

The certification project will be the first to use AI and machine-learning to improve the safety of high-risk flight phases such as taxi, take-off and landing. “Superpilot harnesses advanced AI and machine learning technologies to become the world’s first fully autonomous gate-to-gate flight technology,” Xwing says. The system includes “human on the loop” supervision, or someone monitoring flights from the ground.

The company touts the cost-savings potential and network flexibility of automating cargo flights. “Without a pilot tied to a physical aircraft, it is possible to reduce pilot costs and fly the aircraft more often, yielding more ROI,” Xwing says.

Pilotless cargo flights could potentially allow logistics companies to move away from the hub-and-spoke model of package delivery, Piette says. Cargo-haulers would no longer be limited by pilots’ availability or their rest schedules.

“By not tying the aircraft to the pilots,” he says, “you can start redistributing those assets across geographies in a much more flexible way that can be used to address shifting demands.”

Xwing has been engaged in a series of trials with the FAA to build the safety case for autonomous cargo operations. In December 2022, the company was awarded a contract to participate in the FAA’s Crosscutting Operations Strategy and Technical Assessment (COSTA) project, which is also supported by NASA and the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration.

The ongoing programme focuses on real-world integration of autonomous aircraft, addressing challenges including how they communicate with ATC and operate in complex airspaces, such as those around wildfires. 

Xwing aims for its technology to achieve FAA certification by the end of 2025 and to enter service shortly after, Piette says: “We are very focused on pushing through the certification process right now.”