Hearts racing, eyes skyward; a team of roughly twenty engineers eagerly watched on as a Cessna 172—a small, four-seat aircraft—took flight with no one in the pilot seat. It was 2019, and the team at Reliable Robotics had succeeded in their first ever test flight of autonomous aviation. This milestone came after years of working with the FAA to meet an extensive set of regulatory standards. “It was a real slog to get to that point,” says Robert Rose, CEO and Co-founder of Reliable, “but to me it felt inevitable.”
Rose is no stranger to planes. You might even say that aviation is in his blood. His mother was a pilot and his father was an aircraft maintenance officer while serving in the Air Force. Both his grandfathers were pilots during the second world war. As an adult, Rose was struck by the fact that aircraft technology hadn’t changed much in the past 20 to 30 years. What’s more, even after decades, it’s still a highly manual process.
This led Rose to the central question that would come to occupy his entrepreneurial career: “Why don’t aircraft fly themselves?” The opportunity, he realized, could be enormous. Autonomous aircraft have the potential to radically shift everything from optimizing the routes and delivery times of air cargo planes that ship goods and packages, to making regional and international passenger flights more efficient and accessible for everyday people.
“It’s really about what you can do with an autonomous aircraft that you cannot do with a pilot in a plane,” says Rose. “There are repositioning problems and crew rest rules that make it extremely challenging for a larger operator to realize reasonable margins in operations of an aircraft. And there’s not a lot of flexibility when you have the people tied to the physical asset. By decoupling the pilot from the plane, it enables you to move the aircraft around much more fluidly.”
We recently sat down with Rose to learn more about what it takes to pursue a multi-billion dollar opportunity, his top leadership lesson from his former boss Elon Musk, and much more.
Eclipse: Tell us more about yourself.
Robert: I’m a software engineer by training. Early in my career I worked at Hewlett-Packard, then got into the video game industry. I worked at Sony PlayStation for a number of years as a graphics and game engine programmer, and then got into aerospace through an opportunity at SpaceX. I moved down to LA to lead the flight software team and they needed somebody to lead Falcon 9 flight software, so I took that opportunity on. Somewhere along the way, there was a management shakeup and I ended up being promoted to lead the whole software organization. For the last three and a half years of my time at SpaceX, I reported directly to Elon. I left for an opportunity to be part of the engineering team at Vicarious AI, which just got acquired by Intrinsic, an Alphabet-owned company. From there I went on to take an opportunity at Tesla on the Autopilot program, which was basically an assignment to get the first version out the door. At the conclusion of that project, I ended up going to Google where I led a warehousing robotics team. While I was at Google I became really interested in aviation again, something I’ve been passionate about my entire life.
Eclipse: What drove you to pursue autonomous aviation?
Robert: About five years ago, there was a lot of activity in the Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing community and we all thought, “Well, none of these new eVTOL planes make any sense if they’re piloted. The economics just aren’t going to work.” You don’t need to work very hard in Excel to figure out that math. We broke it down to understand the challenge. Is it a technical issue? I spent a lot of time researching this problem and realized it’s really not a technical issue—there’s nothing preventing us from automating an aircraft through all phases of flight. If we can go to a space station, we can clearly find a centerline at an airport! The problem is more the regulatory environment, and more specifically, people’s willingness to engage with a regulator on some of these really hard problems. If you’re going to automate anything in an aircraft, or put anything into an aircraft, you need to meet a very, very high level of safety standards. It’s not quite like a self-driving car where you can show after X number of miles that the system is safe. In aviation, you have to demonstrate through design, analysis and test that your system is safe up to a hundred million hours meantime between failure, or greater, depending upon the type of system. So the bar is very high and no one had yet decided to really tackle this problem until we took it on. To do so, we needed to methodically break down all of the requirements and regulations and then demonstrate to the regulating body that the system is actually safe.
Eclipse: Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur? What kicked off that journey for you?
Robert: I’m somebody who’s always had some kind of side thing going for most of my life. Going back to lemonade stands when I was a kid, that kind of thing. I started my own little software consulting company when I was in high school and when I was in college—on top of my job and on top of school—I would spend evenings and weekends programming, and at one point started a music recommendation company. Later in my career, I started two video game companies, one of which was marginally successful. When I got the job at SpaceX, it consumed a lot of my time, so my entrepreneurial endeavors were placed on the backburner. However, I still actively read about entrepreneurship, listened to a lot of podcasts, and studied venture capital.
Eclipse: Can you tell us some lessons you learned in your early days as an entrepreneur?
Robert: Reflecting on everything that I had attempted previously, and what worked and what didn’t work, and the traps that I had fallen into, one of the biggest mistakes I made was making a product just for myself that nobody else wanted to buy. That was the main problem with my music recommendation company. With my video game endeavors, it was not doing the right market research to figure out what would be a successful video game for the platform. Also, not marketing the game correctly and/or not setting up the right legal framework for the company. I reached a conclusion back then that if I’m going to start a company, it needs to meet three criteria. First, it needs to be something that leverages my previous experience, so I need to be “built” for this opportunity. The second was that it needs to be something that I can imagine myself spending the next 15 to 20 years or the rest of my career on. Finally, it needs to be a multi-billion dollar opportunity or it’s just not worth it. I figured if I’m going to put my family and myself through the financial risk of a startup, then it needs to be a multi-billion dollar opportunity—preferably the next-trillion-dollar-company-level opportunity. When the idea for Reliable started to formulate, it was an exercise of me trying to convince myself not to do this company for many months. There was a lot of writing and self reflection that happened, and a lot of research—especially on the business side. I was trying to prove that this is not a multi-billion dollar opportunity. And the problem was that every single way I kept slicing it, it seemed like I had a multi-multi-billion dollar opportunity! And, I felt like this was something I really could sink my teeth into for at least the next 15 years, and my previous experience at SpaceX/Tesla uniquely positioned me to work on this problem.
Eclipse: What excites you the most about the potential of Reliable Robotics?
Robert: I believe the way that we move people and goods around the world is going to change dramatically over the next several decades, and autonomous aircraft are going to be a key part of that. When it comes to personal travel and the movement of people, I think we’re going to see massive changes in how people think about moving around cities, regionally, and between continents. People called the Boeing 747, “The plane that shrank the world,” and I think we’re about to have another massive world-shrinking event once autonomous aircraft are a reality. We also have the opportunity to impact supply chains, eCommerce, and how you purchase things. We don’t realize it, but a lot of high value goods that we purchase today move through the sky. Automated aircraft are going to enable even more products to be transported by air. I’m also very optimistic that autonomous aircraft are going to be key to unlocking electric, hybrid electric, and more efficient modes of propulsion, which will reduce the overall carbon footprint of aviation. Even with a vintage aircraft, automating it allows us to operate the engine more efficiently in the aircraft overall, so you can get single digit or low double digit performance improvements.
Eclipse: Do you have any tips for new entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Robert: It depends on the individual. I often tell people that they need to read Venture Deals, before you talk to a VC. I think educating yourself on how that market actually works is critical. There’s also another really good book I like, The Founder’s Dilemma, which can help founders understand how to structure your company with your co-founders. Personally, I found that book extremely illuminating. The other thing I’d say is to spend a lot of time with the people who you intend to sell your product or service to. It can be really hard to actually make the effort to go out and do real customer exploration and discovery to figure out if your solution is actually going to meet their needs. I’ve seen a lot of friends’ companies run into issues because they were not making enough contact with their customers.
Eclipse: What’s your top fundraising tip?
Robert: Talk to Eclipse, of course. Just kidding—sort of. But I think another thing that I did right—by accident or inadvertently did correct—was that I adopted a “take every meeting” attitude. Naturally, I’m a very introverted person and I decided that to be successful at building a company, I needed to work on fixing that. If somebody had said to old Robert, “Oh, this was really interesting. You should totally talk to my buddy so and so,” I would say, “I don’t know if that really makes a lot of sense. They don’t sound like they really know anything about this.” Of course, that’s what I would be thinking, but now with this “take every meeting” mentality, I force myself to go talk to the person. I ended up building a pretty substantial network of folks in the Valley that understood fundraising and knew everybody that would potentially want to invest in something like what we’re building at Reliable.
Eclipse: What kind of culture are you building at your company?
Robert: We aim to foster an environment where a new employee is trusted by their peers on day one. There’s no trial period. You come in, hit the ground running, and you can make decisions. A lot of that is a tribute to our hiring process and the very, very high hiring bar we’ve set. If you can get through that process, you’re just as trusted as somebody that’s been here since the early days. One of the ways that you establish trust is by being able to freely challenge anything. So if you’re not comfortable with something or if you want to understand something, it’s okay to press the brake and ask a question. My co-founder says that nobody’s going to get in trouble for saying something; you’re going to get in trouble for not saying something. Peer review is immensely important. For peer review to work well, you need a transparent, open, and trust-based culture. It’s not about challenging your peers, it’s about challenging the product or questioning the status quo. People need to be capable of objectively identifying the faults in something that they were involved in creating. Not everybody can do that. A lot of people get emotionally attached to things that they built, and I don’t believe that works in aviation and it definitely doesn’t work at Reliable Robotics.
Eclipse: Your former boss, Elon Musk, has been in the news quite a bit lately. What’s the biggest leadership lesson you learned from him?
Robert: Elon is really mission driven—more so than I think any other human being I’ve ever met. Maybe we take this for granted now because it’s 2022, but back in 2010 when Elon was talking about colonizing Mars, 99.99999% of the population that heard him did not take him seriously. And it is not until you spend a lot of time with him that you realize, “Oh, the guy is actually very serious about that.” And every decision that is made at SpaceX is in service of colonizing Mars. I remember reflecting on my time there after I left and thinking that there was something really special at SpaceX where every person all up and down the management chain could explain to you the mission of the company and how the work they were doing on that day, at that minute helped connect the company with the colonization of Mars. You could go down to the shop floor and you could talk to somebody who was bending tubes and you could say, “Hey, what’s this tube for?” And they would say, “That’s going to go on that rocket and that rocket is then going to demonstrate that we can rendezvous multiple rockets in low earth orbit. The system will then allow us to transport the goods to Mars and eventually, will carry the people to Mars.” No matter where you were on the organizational ladder, people understood why their work was impactful. That really struck me and is something I think about almost every day at Reliable — you have to keep connecting the team to the mission. I continuously reiterate that I understand people are grinding on what may seem a little problem and that I get the frustration, but that little problem will help us get to the autonomous aircraft. So, please keep grinding on that problem.
Eclipse: What’s in store for the future of autonomous aviation?
Robert: Speaking even longer term—and the reason the company is named Reliable Robotics—is that we have ambitions to go beyond aviation. We foresee a need in the future for highly reliable automated and autonomous systems, not just in the sky, but in ground vehicles, in medical device solutions, industrial applications, and everywhere really. I think today we’re in this wild west mode where there is a lot of low-reliability robotics, but I think over the next several decades, people are going to start to demand higher levels of reliability and safety assurance out of these systems. And we plan to be there to provide a solution. Given our experience in aviation, we’re confident we’ll be able to present solutions that are highly reliable, but also exhibit extremely complex behavior.