There’s nothing unusual looking about the 38-footlong cargo plane that’s been flying around Northern California for the past month. But the insides of the Cessna 208 have undergone a sci-fi makeover, resulting in a plane that’s been taxiing, taking off, maneuvering in the air, and landing without a pilot.
The machinery and software that let it fly on its own come from a startup called Reliable Robotics Corp., which has spent four years working on autonomous flight. The company has a grand total of two planes, but its long-term plan is to fill the sky with pilotless aircraft transporting cargo and passengers.
Reliable’s story begins with the self-doubt of its co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Robert Rose. His attempt to become a pilot in college ended for lack of money, but by 2016 he’d earned enough to give the cockpit another shot. Rose, who’d spent his career building autonomous cars and spacecraft for Tesla Inc. and SpaceX, expected that planes would have modernized since he last hopped in a cockpit. But the one he took up had decades-old technology. The shock of how much the flight still relied on a human pilot hit Rose midair as he contemplated his rusty skills and mortality.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, it’s insane that a private person is allowed to do this,’ ” he says. “You have all this navigation that you need to manage and all the communications you have to do between other planes and taking instructions from air traffic control. There’s layers and layers of stuff. All the while, you are one mistake away from a fatal accident. I kept thinking, ‘How is this OK?’ ”
Rose founded Reliable in 2017 with Juerg Frefel, an old buddy from SpaceX. The pair set up shop in Rose’s garage in Los Altos, Calif., planning to make improved autopilot technology. They hoped to tap into the mechanical and positioning systems available on most planes, buy a couple of off-the-shelf sensors, and tie everything together with clever software that could make the types of decisions usually expected of pilots. Each step of the way, however, they discovered the existing gear for sale wasn’t resilient enough for the job. “You just could not have a serious conversation about removing the human from the plane with these parts,” Rose says. “That meant we had to build.”
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