Reliable Robotics, a startup developing autonomous flight technologies, this week emerged from stealth with $33.5 million in venture capital funding. Cofounder and CEO Robert Rose says the funds will be used to scale production of the company’s products and bring on new engineering talent.
Aviation companies pursuing autonomous transportation include Uber, Boeing, and Honeywell. According to management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, replacing single-pilot operations with autonomous planes could save airlines as much as $60 billion annually. Pandemic headwinds have only reinvigorated the search for cost-cutting opportunities, as Statista estimates airlines will lose at least $314 billion in revenue in 2020.
Looking to expedite their path to market, companies like Xwing, Airbus, and Elroy Air have explored retrofitting existing aircraft rather than developing hardware from scratch. Reliable Robotics, which was founded in 2017 by Rose and VP of engineering Juerg Frefel, aims to develop a platform that imbues any fixed-wing plane with autonomous capabilities.
Reliable Robotic’s platform spans avionics, software mechanisms, communications systems, remote control interfaces, and backup systems that enable human pilots to take over if needed. Development kicked off in earnest two years ago, when the company began adapting its electronics to a four-passenger Cessna 172 Skyhawk (C172) airplane. Autonomous gate-to-gate operations, safety analysis, and testing wrapped up in late 2018 and early 2019, and last September Reliable Robotics conducted an unmanned test flight over a “populated region” without an onboard pilot.
The company says last month it autonomously landed an even larger aircraft — the Cessna 208 Caravan (C208) — capable of carrying 14 passengers when at full capacity. Following this and the C172 demonstration, Reliable Robotics began working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on incrementally bringing its platform to the market. (The agency granted it approval for unmanned flight in December 2018.)
Reliable Robotic’s product falls under the FAA’s Part 25 and Part 23 rules, which apply to airplanes that weigh less than 19,000 pounds, have 19 or fewer passenger seats, and are designed for trips ranging from 30 to 300 miles. When introduced in August 2017, Part 23 replaced prescriptive requirements with performance-based standards, coupled with compliance methods for specific designs and technologies. It also added certification standards to address “loss of control” accidents, like when an aircraft deviates from a preplanned route.
Elroy Air, which is developing hybrid-electric aircraft for cargo transportation, is among the handful of startups working toward Part 23 certification. Two others are Velocopter and California-based Sabrewing, which are building vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) drones targeting passenger and freight transportation.
It’s early days, but Rose is confident in Reliable Robotic’s ability to deliver its platform to goods-transporting customers ahead of passenger flight operators. Rose formerly led engineering efforts on the Autopilot program at Tesla and flight software at SpaceX, where Frefel helped develop the compute platform for the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. Reliable Robotic’s founding members also include veterans from Boeing and Airbus.
The company’s $33.5 million came from two funding rounds, one led by Lightspeed Ventures and the other by Eclipse Ventures. Pathbreaker Ventures and Teamworthy Ventures also participated.