Two pilotless passenger aircraft just flew in the same airspace, at the same time — and everything turned out just fine. It’s a huge step in the world of uncrewed aircraft, as the flights occurred with the support of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under its Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Airspace Management Demonstration (UAMD) project.
The two flights were run by two different companies running two completely different aircraft. The first was a 4,100-pound, twin-propeller Centaur aircraft from Aurora Flight Sciences, which is a subsidiary of the Boeing Company, and can be flown as either a piloted, remotely piloted or hybrid aircraft. The second was an aircraft designed to be fully automated from Reliable Robotics.
“The Federal Aviation Administration Urban Air Mobility Management Demonstration was a huge success for everyone involved,” said Brandon Clark, who worked on the project, via a post to his LinkedIn account. “With teammates in Hollister CA and in NJ at the NextGen Integration & Evaluation Capability (NIEC) center, everything went according to plan. These two aircraft were operated remotely which is a stepping stone into the future of aviation.”
It’s autonomous everything in Silicon Valley
The flights, which occurred at the same time this summer, spanned a roughly 20-mile route between San Martin Airport and Hollister Airport, both small airports located within 50 miles of San Jose, California. The route, albeit pretty rural on its own, sits in the shadow of Silicon Valley, which is where autonomous vehicles from the likes of Google-sister company Waymo, and others such as Cruise, are being tested.
The news of side-by-side autonomous aircraft testing comes at an interesting time for the San Francisco Bay Area. Just this month, California regulators voted Thursday to allow self-driving car companies Waymo and Cruise to offer 24/7 paid taxi service in San Francisco. That means regular people can book a car to drive them within the city just as they might book a Lyft or Uber, albeit these ones don’t have a driver (they don’t even have employees sitting in the car as backup).
The combination of driverless cars and pilot passenger aircraft solidifies the San Francisco Bay Area as not just an tech hub, but a hub for the autonomous vehicle (AV) industry.
Reliable Robotics itself is located in Mountain View, which is a city within Silicon Valley. Boeing (and thus Aurora) are based in Virginia.
How those pilotless passenger aircraft flights actually worked
While the tech to operate a pilotless plane is nothing new, what is new is testing to ensure multiple aircraft overseen by two completely different sets of operators can safely fly relatively nearby each other, without actually crashing.
To make that happen requires quite the orchestra of companies and other organizations involved. Texas A&M University Corpus Christi Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence & Innovation provided test site operator support, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University was the overall project manager, and the FAA was the project sponsor. The FAA also provided air traffic controller expertise and support from their NexGen Integration and Evaluation Capability laboratory.
Companies supporting Reliable Robotics included UTM provider One Sky. Meanwhile those supporting Aurora Flight Sciences included ANRA Technologies, which supported the test as a Provider of Services for UAM.
“There have been many meetings, numerous simulations and plenty of tests to ensure the safe operation of real aircraft flying while connected to the ANRA platform in the NAS,” stated David Murphy, UAMD Project Lead for ANRA. “The ANRA PSU, DCB and DSS worked great, but we have much more to learn on how we continue to integrate UAM operations in today’s air traffic system.”
What’s next for pilotless passenger aircraft?
These flights didn’t include actual passengers, but it is a stepping stone based on what it was able to achieve in terms of proof of concept. Some reasons why this summer’s test matters:
- It validated what we know in theory about UAM — but it just executed it in real life.
- Rather than in an ultra-controlled airspace, these flights occurred in “a dynamic environment wherein TFM constraints were placed on constrained resources within the operational corridor.”
- Data was exchanged. Both parties were able to share their flight information through standardized message protocols, making their operations clear while also providing status updates about the corridor upon which they were flying (to ensure aircraft in that corridor did not exceed capacity).
It’s worth noting that autonomous flights of aircraft large enough to carry people are nothing all that new. The Centaur flew with no pilot at the controls all the way back in 2015, with it becoming the first large-scale fixed wing unmanned aircraft to fly at an FAA-approved test site. That site was the FAA’s test site in Rome, New York which is famous for its 50-mile drone corridor between Central New York and the Mohawk Valley. What’s different about 2015’s flight verus the one today is that operation was far more controlled, and there was only the single aircraft in the air at that time.
Reliable Robotics didn’t launch for another few years until 2017, but since then it has made major progress toward the certification of fully automated aircraft. Earlier this summer, its ertification plan was formally accepted by the FAA, which leverages existing regulations for normal and transport category aircraft, and does not require any special conditions or exemptions. Its autonomous aircraft have been used in demonstrations as part of U.S. Air Force and NASA flight test campaigns.
“Autonomy can and will be certified in the very near future,” said Robert Rose, Co-founder and CEO at Reliable Robotics.