Reliable Robotics Partners With ASL Aviation On Autonomous Freighters

Reliable Robotics is currently working toward FAA certification of its automation system on the Cessna 208 Grand Caravan.

Credit: Reliable Robotics

Reliable Robotics has announced a partnership with European cargo specialist ASL Aviation Holdings aimed at integrating autonomous technologies into air cargo services.

The partnership is aimed at evaluating the use of Reliable Robotics’ Remotely Operated Aircraft System into select aircraft from ASL’s large freighter fleet–which includes nearly 100 aircraft manufactured by Airbus, ATR and Boeing–with “initial focus on large twin-engine turboprop freighters,” the company said.

Both companies are members of the ASL CargoVision forum, a collaborative initiative aimed at advancing sustainable aviation technologies in air freight. 

“What we’re announcing today is the next step in our relationship where we’re looking to get much more specific on the precise sequence of steps to introduce new technology into air cargo operations, especially in Europe and within ASL’s fleet,” Reliable Robotics CEO Robert Rose told Aviation Week. “We both have a deep commitment to safety and see automation as a way of improving the safety of these systems, so there’s strong alignment between us.”

Mountain View, California-based Reliable Robotics has also been working to obtain a supplemental type certificate (STC) for a Cessna 208 Caravan cargo aircraft modified with its continuous engagement autopilot system. The FAA agreed to a certification basis for the system in August, and the company is in the final stages of establishing Means of Compliance, Rose said. The FAA is also reviewing issue papers for the startup’s auto-landing, auto-takeoff and auto-taxiing systems, a process that Rose says will “hopefully be completed soon.”

The CEO declined to speculate on a specific timeline for full FAA supplemental type certification, but said the company is hoping to achieve its STC “within the next two years.”

Assuming the STC is granted, Rose said that Reliable Robotics plans to begin by integrating the continuous engagement autopilot system into the fleet of AirDialog–its Albuquerque, New Mexico-based wholly-owned airline subsidiary–which operates a fleet of five Cessna Caravans as cargo feeder aircraft on behalf of FedEx. 

“We’re basically using this airline as an R&D platform for how to get these types of operations certified,” Rose said. “From there, we’re going to move into operations and start testing at a larger scale.” 

Rose said the company plans to pursue additional STCs for the Caravan to further improve and enhance the reach of its automation systems. Eventually, the company hopes to offer its system to other Caravan operators as well. 

“We don’t aspire to be a large operator of Caravans; we’re just using this as an R&D platform,” Rose explained.

While Rose acknowledged the opposition in the U.S. and other regions to the idea of fully unmanned air cargo operations, he pushed back against the notion that removing a pilot from the cockpit would jeopardize safety, as pilot unions in the U.S. and some members of Congress have asserted.

“History has shown that every advancement we’ve had in terms of automation in aviation has made aircraft safer, and that’s partly the reason why commercial air transportation is the safest form of transportation globally,” Rose said. “It’s unfortunate that we, as a species, possess the capability to put advanced levels of automation into aircraft and we haven’t done that yet—and so that’s why we started this company.”

Ben Goldstein

Based in Washington, Ben covers Congress, regulatory agencies, the Departments of Justice and Transportation and lobby groups.