Search

The Future of Autonomous Flight in Cargo Operations

The Future of Autonomous Flight in Cargo Operations

The News: Today’s high-tech passenger jets often involve pilots simply setting up and monitoring their autopilot and other automated systems. At a recent event marking the delivery of the last commercial 747, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told Bloomberg TV, “Autonomy is going to come to all of the airplanes eventually,” adding that “the future of autonomy is real” for civil aviation. Meanwhile, Boeing rival Airbus has been testing a suite of advanced autonomous flight systems called DragonFly designed to enable automatic landings in bad weather, handle in-flight emergencies (such as an incapacitated human pilot), and ease pilots’ workloads while taxiing around complicated airports. Read more on Axios.

The Future of Autonomous Flight in Cargo Operations

Analyst Take: Many flyers might not realize that today’s high-tech passenger jets often involve pilots simply setting up and monitoring their autopilot and other automated systems. At a recent event marking the delivery of the last commercial 747, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told Bloomberg TV, “Autonomy is going to come to all of the airplanes eventually,” adding that “the future of autonomy is real” for civil aviation. Meanwhile, Boeing rival Airbus has been testing a suite of advanced autonomous flight systems called DragonFly designed to enable automatic landings in bad weather, handle in-flight emergencies (such as an incapacitated human pilot), and ease pilots’ workloads while taxiing around complicated airports.

Xwing

Boeing and Airbus are not the only companies eyeing autonomous flights. Xwing, a California-based company developing autonomous flight technology, has been contracted by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to participate in the agency’s Crosscutting Operations Strategy and Technical Assessment (COSTA) air traffic management research project. Xwing will work together with the FAA and NASA, as well as partners at Alaska’s Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, to study how remotely piloted aircraft can be safely integrated with the National Airspace System while flying in complex environments with flight restrictions, such as fire traffic areas where different types of aircraft actively work to fight wildfires.

Xwing is already conducting flight tests with experimental Cessna Grand Caravans modified with autonomous flight technology. Xwing flew its remotely piloted aircraft into real fire traffic areas in Northern California in early 2023. Those flights departed from Xwing’s hangar at Buchanan Field Airport in Concord, California, just northeast of San Francisco. Each flight has a safety pilot on board while remote operators monitor from the company’s mobile mission control center.

Natilus Autonomous Flight

Although Natilus cargo jets will be capable of fully autonomous flight, they will initially operate with a remote pilot in an office to comply with current safety standards and enable faster approval. The ability to be certified under current regulations is a big advantage over drones used for last-mile logistics. Switching from a pilot in the cockpit to a “fly-by-mouse autopilot system” is a smaller leap for civil aviation authorities, who are already comfortable with existing autopilot functions that allow most of the trip to be preprogrammed and turn the pilot into a skilled flight manager rather than a manual aviator.

Natilus is a 7-year-old startup with new technology that has yet to produce an actual plane and will require huge amounts of capital for further R&D and establishing a manufacturing line. The motivation for Ameriflight, and other carriers, to sign expressions of interest is to be at the front of the line when production aircraft become available and get a jump on competitors.

Ameriflight, a large, regional feeder airline for UPS and other overnight express carriers, has tentatively committed to buy 20 remote-controlled cargo planes, with a novel design, for middle-mile deliveries. Currently, Ameriflight flies 156 small turboprop aircraft daily to more than 200 destinations in the US and the Caribbean. Ameriflight has signed a letter of intent with San Diego-based Natilus for 20 Kona feeder aircraft valued at $134 million, the companies announced. Natilus co-founder and CEO Aleksey Matyushev says the company expects to begin Kona flight tests in late 2024, and customer deliveries in 2026. He explains that the remote operator simply inputs waypoints into the aircraft’s navigation system and monitors the system to make sure everything is functioning properly. Matyushev explained that with remote piloting, a single individual could operate three aircraft simultaneously.

The progress made by Xwing and Natilus demonstrates that the next generation of autonomous systems will first prove their technology works safely in cargo operations before coming to passenger aircraft.

Disclosure: The Futurum Group is a research and advisory firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this article. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this article.

Analysis and opinions expressed herein are specific to the analyst individually and data and other information that might have been provided for validation, not those of The Futurum Group as a whole.

Other Insights from The Futurum Group:

Survey: Decision Makers Embracing the Autonomous Enterprise

Commercial Vehicles to Get a Boost in Autonomous driving Capabilities in New Plus Luminar Partnership

Waymo’s Strategic Move Into Ride-Hailing With Waymo One

Author Information

Clint Wheelock

Clint brings over 20 years of market research and consulting experience, focused on emerging technology markets. He was co-founder and CEO of Dash Network, an integrated research and digital media firm focused on the CX market, which was acquired by The Futurum Group in 2022. He previously founded Tractica with a focus on human interaction with technology, including coverage of AI, user interface technologies, advanced computing, and other emerging sectors. Acquired by Informa Group, Clint served as Chief Research Officer for Informa’s research division, Omdia, with management and content strategy responsibility, formed by the combination of Tractica, Ovum, IHS Markit Technology, and Heavy Reading.
Clint was previously the founder and President of Pike Research, a leading market intelligence firm focused on the global clean technology industry, which was acquired by Navigant Consulting where he was Managing Director of the Navigant Research business.

Prior to Pike Research, Clint was Chief Research Officer at ABI Research, a New York-based industry analyst firm concentrating on the impact of emerging technologies on global consumer and business markets.

Clint holds a Master of Business Administration in Telecommunications Management from the University of Dallas and a Bachelor of Arts in History from Washington & Lee University.

SHARE:

Latest Insights:

The Six Five team discusses NVIDIA announces Mistral NeMo 12B NIM.
The Six Five team discusses Apple using YouTube to train its models.
The Six Five team discusses TSMC Q2FY24 earnings.