First gate-to-gate autonomous airplane flight

A new era of aviation is dawning, and no one may be at the controls.

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A San Francisco-based company is claiming an aviation first with a gate-to-gate fully autonomous flight. You can see a video of the flight in the embed below.

The company, Xwing, is setting out to introduce autonomous technology for regional air cargo, an overlooked space in the global race for autonomy but, with its sub-500 mile predictable routes and significant commercial importance, an intriguing entry point for autonomous air travel. Xwing is betting it can gain ground amid growing unmet logistics demand using its human-operated software stack that seamlessly integrates with existing aircraft to enable regional pilotless flight. 

"Over the past year, our team has made significant advancements in extending and refining our AutoFlight system to seamlessly integrate ground taxiing, take-offs, landings and flight operations, all supervised from our mission control center via redundant data links," says Marc Piette, CEO and founder of Xwing. "Additionally, our piloted commercial cargo operations have been delivering critical supplies including COVID-19 vaccines, to remote communities since December 2020."

The recent news-making flight saw a Cessna Grand Caravan 208B leave the gate, taxi, take-off, land and return to the gate entirely on its own. The flight was remotely monitored and all air traffic control interactions were done from the ground.

Recently, several companies have debuted air taxis, which promise to whisk passengers above traffic en route to their destination. Unmanned drones have now long been a part of the aerial landscape, but drones aren't the only kind of self-driving aerial vehicle regulators have been dealing with. It may seem a foregone conclusion that self-driving cars are on the way, but we've heard less about autonomous aircraft, as I've written. That's changing. Following recent crashes related to failures in autonomous systems on-board Boeing's 737MAX, you might expect consumer confidence to have eroded significantly. However, a recent ANSYS study found that wasn't the case. In fact, 70% of consumers say they are ready to fly in autonomous aircraft in their lifetime. 

Xwing's entry into the market seems well-timed. New reports show a global gap of 34,000 open pilot positions by 2025. Logistics are also strained with growing demand for fast delivery. With the rise in e-commerce sales set to top $4.2 trillion, the success of e-commerce is inherently dependent on the efficiency of the air cargo industry. Xwing plans to leverage its technology for e-commerce logistics, enabling greater accessibility to small airports and more efficient cargo transportation. 

"The future of air transportation is autonomous," Marc Piette, CEO and founder of Xwing, told us last year. "We believe the path to full autonomy begins with the air cargo market, and involves remote operators supervising fleets of unmanned aircraft."