A San Francisco Bay Area-based autonomous aviation company start-up, XWing, says its flagship aircraft, a Cessna Grand Caravan 208B has completed its first “fully automated gate-to-gate demonstration of a commercial cargo aircraft,” at a time when self-flying planes are edging closer to becoming a reality.

The specially outfitted Cessna Grand Caravan 208B – often used for short-haul cargo deliveries and passenger flights seating up to 14 passengers – conducted a flight that had it leave the gate, taxi, take-off, land and return to the gate entirely on its own, with the pilot sitting back and monitoring the systems and possibly taking over the automated system if need arises.

The flight took place in February 2021 at Buchanan Field Airport in Concord, California, just outside San Francisco, the company announced on April 15th.

Over the past year, our team has made significant advancements in extending and refining our Auto Flight system to seamlessly integrate ground taxiing, take-offs, landings and flight operations, all supervised from our mission control centre via redundant data links,” said Xwing chief executive Marc Piette.

As we work to bring our technology to market, I’m particularly looking forward to building out our commercialization strategy to bring consumers and logistics companies the most effective air cargo solutions available,” Jesse Kallman, Xwing’s vice president of commercialization and strategy, said in a statement.

Led by Blackhorn Ventures, with participation from ACME Capital, Loup Ventures, R7 Partners, Eniac Ventures, Alven Capital and Array Ventures, the new round brings the company’s total capital raised to $55 million, and will be used to scale its innovation and team,” said the company after its most recent funding round, which is now valued at $400 million.

XWing was founded in 2016 and operated in “stealth” mode until May 2020 when it acquired a Part 135 Air Carrier certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), giving it permission to operate on-demand unscheduled charter services for air cargo transport.

The firm’s flagship aircraft is a model powered turboprop Pratt & Whitney PT6A-114A engine that offers 675 shaft horsepower with a ranging capability of around 1,000 nautical miles. The aircraft is well known for its safety and reliability record and was FAA certified in 1984.

With regulation being the biggest impediment to self-flying planes, using the Cessna 208B – due to its safety and reliability record – was the only way to convince the regulatory agency FAA  to certify the company’s software and safety plans, not the airframe and engines, as regulators have been wary of certificating such a system, and the general public also has yet to be convinced that pilotless travel is a good thing.

The firm is targeting the cargo feeder market and anticipates operating in a 434nm (805km) range.

Xwing is among numerous aviation technology firms, including aerospace heavyweights Boeing and Airbus, in the running to build autonomous flight systems for aircraft of all sizes. Airbus has also been seen leading the charge towards self-flying planes, having demonstrated successful autonomous taxi, takeoff, and landing maneuvers with its Airbus A350-1000 XWB.

By Victor Shalton Odhiambo

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