At a gut level, a future when fully autonomous transportation is commonplace seems closer for cars than airplanes. Sure, all new Tesla vehicles now come standard with Autopilot, and carmakers ranging from startups to the Big Three in Detroit are in the race. But there are still many obstacles that make our roads highly unpredictable and hazardous terrains to navigate: joggers and e-scooters launching off curbs into the crosswalk, distracted drivers all around us, cars suddenly breaking down on a narrow bridge over the bay.
At this point, it’s largely every motorist for themselves out there. However, when you look up, today’s skies are a wide-open environment where your one job is to avoid hitting anything else. Our airspace is also tightly regulated by the FAA, managed nationally by air-traffic control, and steeped in protocols like instrument flight rules (IFR), which all pilots must follow in low-visibility conditions.
In other words, the aviation industry’s robust infrastructure lowers risk and presents a nice glide path for innovation in autonomous flight.
Of course, as always in entrepreneurship, success depends on the technology and the team behind it. In this case, the ideal team would consist of exceptionally talented technologists with deep industry experience, a proven track record of building fully autonomous systems, and the ability to maneuver within a highly regulated industry.
That describes the team at Reliable Robotics to a T. The 3-year-old company is headed by Co-Founder and CEO Robert Rose, who led flight software at SpaceX and the Autopilot program at Tesla, launching the Falcon 9 rocket, Dragon spacecraft and thto a T. The 3-year-old company is headed by Co-Founder and CEO Robert Rose, who led flight software at SpaceX and the Autopilot program at Tesla, launching the Falcon 9 rocket, Dragon spacecraft and the first consumer automobile with fully unassisted self-driving capability.
His fellow co-founder, Juerg Frefel, is Reliable’s VP of Engineering, and led the team that developed the compute platform for the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft. Other senior members of the team have played key roles in the development of the Boeing 787, Airbus A380 and other major commercial aircraft and avionics systems.
Reliable Robotics CEO Robert Rose explains the company’s vision for unlocking aviation’s full potential.
I remember when Robert’s team at Tesla rolled out the very first version of Autopilot, around 2015. At the time, I was VP of Global Manufacturing for the electric carmaker, and so I had a front-row seat for this pivotal moment in automotive history. The experience made several lasting impressions that stuck with me after I joined Eclipse Ventures — realizations that would later inform our decision to partner with Reliable at a time when the field was crowded with startups promising to make fully autonomous vehicles a reality.
One realization was that Robert was the first person ever to ship an actual automated driving system that customers in the general population could use. The second thing I learned to appreciate was just how difficult it would be to get us as a society to embrace self-driving cars, given all the challenges that today’s roads and regulatory environment present — from the everyday dangers of driving, to the nascent attempts back in Washington to develop industry rules and standards for an evolving technology.
That’s why we felt airborne autonomy presented the most promising opportunity for the right company. And what convinced us that Reliable was the right company was, again, that you had a team that not only delivered commercially viable self-driving systems, but that also built autonomous spacecraft and self-landing rockets at SpaceX.
Let’s face it: If SpaceX (and NASA) can build rockets that launch themselves, go up into orbit, execute the highly fraught re-entry to Earth, and then automatically land on a tiny ship in the ocean, shouldn’t it be possible for a self-flying plane to taxi out, takeoff, cruise at a fraction of the altitude, and then come back and land itself on a runway centerline? The technology and human talent exist now.
Not that it’s easy. You know how Reid Hoffman once described an entrepreneur as someone who jumps off a cliff and builds a plane on the way down? For Robert and his team at Reliable, they took the exact opposite approach. The mantra about moving fast and breaking things has no place in aviation. The traditional Silicon Valley approach to innovation through iterations on MVPs does not apply when it comes to transforming complex, physical industries where glitches can cost actual lives.
Over the past year, Reliable methodically accomplished several firsts in U.S. airspace without much fanfare. In September 2019, the company successfully flew a four-passenger Cessna 172 Skyhawk (C172) with no one on board, just outside San Jose, California. The 2,550-pound plane was supervised by a pilot on the ground via the company’s remote-command interface. The proprietary autonomous platform also includes avionics, software, a communications system, and a backup system that has the capability to take over if needed.
On that day, Reliable became the first private organization to operate an unmanned aircraft of this type anywhere in the world. Prior to this, unmanned aircraft were primarily the domain of government research or military programs.
But the journey to get to that point began almost two years prior. I’ve been impressed with the team’s progress at every turn. Getting FAA approval to modify an aircraft is one thing — getting FAA approval to fly one with no pilot onboard is quite another. The team broke the problem down into manageable milestones and slowly and methodically worked through them. Starting with their first approval to begin tests in January 2018, Reliable gradually expanded the envelope of capability, ultimately receiving approval to fly unmanned by the end of that year.
It can’t be overstated how incredible it is for a new entrant to be able to achieve something of this magnitude, on this timeline, while also working in an environment like aviation, where expectations for safety are extremely high.
Reliable’s platform can be applied to any fixed-wing aircraft. And most recently, the team demonstrated fully automated remote landing of an even larger aircraft, the Cessna 208 Caravan (C208) — the workhorse for regional cargo logistics.
Build the airplane after jumping off a cliff? This team didn’t even step onto the tarmac until they completed extensive system safety analysis and testing back in the hangar. This is how complex, consequential entrepreneurship is done, and it is precisely how you transform critical industries.
Having come from these industries ourselves, we realize that the disruptors likeliest to gain acceptance in these massive, legacy sectors are those who come with deep, first-hand experiences and insights into the actual pain points within these industries.
Here, we had heavyweights of the aerospace field, with a proven track record, bringing full autonomy to aviation. And they weren’t gunning for all-purpose autonomy, either. From its earliest days, Reliable has been focused on a very specific market: regional logistics where cargo is transported to and from smaller airports around the country.
This also appealed to us, as it eliminated the various headwinds that would no doubt push against a solution intended for passenger aircraft right out the gate. This approach also addresses a major headache that pilots who fly these small aircraft face, which is a lot of time and effort wasted on activities other than flying.
Here’s how a regional pilot’s typical day might go: They drive to the airport, hop in a Cessna 208 and transport cargo to another town. Then, if they’ve timed out on hours, they stay in a motel overnight, away from home and family, and then fly back the next day. Meanwhile, the plane sits at the airport, grounded for many hours.
What Reliable’s platform does is allow a pilot to operate the plane remotely through a graphic user interface from the comfort of a control center, maximizing the pilot’s time, as well as use of the aircraft. Doubling or tripling the amount of goods transported by a single cargo plane would result in significant savings for shippers, which is the primary economic incentive for this technology.
For Reliable’s milestone flight last September, a certified pilot on the ground simply pressed a button on the remote-command interface, and the unmanned C172 automatically taxied, took off and landed. Just as rocket launches still require a team back at Mission Control, Reliable’s solution requires an actual pilot to oversee the most complicated stages of flight: the takeoff and landing.
“Automated aircraft are going to fundamentally shift the entire airline business, and Reliable Robotics is well positioned to be a key player in this new market. The progress their team has demonstrated in a short amount of time is very impressive,” David Neeleman, founder of five commercial airlines, including JetBlue Airways, said in today’s announcement that Reliable is emerging from stealth.
Ultimately, Reliable envisions a time when one pilot can operate multiple aircraft at the same time and hopes to expand its platform to accommodate passenger planes. So, even in a world where aircraft fully fly themselves, humans will still be at the helm.
With $33.5 million in two rounds of funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and Eclipse Ventures, respectively, we look forward to seeing Reliable Robotics accelerate the evolution of aviation as we know it. Imagine: less gridlock on the ground, better utilization of the thousands of smaller, regional airports around the country, and yes, safer passage than our roads currently offer.
Once you set your sights higher, as the team at Reliable Robotics has, the sky is the limit.
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