Silicon Valley has been hard at work on the vexing challenge of autonomous cars. Now veterans of SpaceX and Tesla are announcing what they’ve been up to: a new startup working on self-flying planes for cargo.
Reliable Robotics isn’t trying to invent a new kind of aircraft. The idea is to bring autonomous capability to existing planes, starting with smaller aircraft that ferry cargo. In June, with approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Reliable Robotics demonstrated a fully automated remote landing of a Cessna 208 Caravan turboprop owned by FedEx.
Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Robert Rose led flight software at Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, then led the early Autopilot program at Tesla before joining Google. He co-founded Reliable Robotics in 2017 with Juerg Frefal, who worked at SpaceX for almost a decade.
“When I first started taking flying lessons myself, my first thought was, why isn’t this automated?” Rose said. “I worked on autonomous rockets and spacecraft and cars. Aviation is so much more well understood compared to driving.”
Based in Mountain View, California, the 35-person startup is focused on integrating automation into existing systems, starting with a small cargo aircraft. The plane flies on its own, but a pilot helps manage extreme weather or air traffic control from a control center on the ground.
Developers of automated flying technology envision everything from small drones delivering packages to air taxis ferrying human passengers across cities. While the visions are bold, the ones that pan out will take years to materialize.
“There are a lot of companies trying to get into this space, and it’s going to take time,” said Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at Teal Group. “But a market will develop.” FAA regulators are being cautious, he said, “and there’s a lot of hurdles that need to be surmounted before you can have widespread cargo deliveries. Carrying people is years out.”
Reliable has been in discussions with FedEx, which owns the Cessna used during recent test flights. The company is working with the FAA to get its system certified for use in civilian airspace and has raised $33.5 million in two rounds of funding led by Lightspeed Ventures and Eclipse Ventures, respectively.
“I think we’ll see self-flying aircraft before we see massive adoption of self-driving cars,” said Greg Reichow, a partner at Eclipse Ventures who serves on Reliable Robotics’ board. “It’s a more achievable problem. When you are driving a car on the ground it has to deal with all of the variables of the streets: construction and kids and soccer balls and other cars. The air is more controlled: there’s controlled air space, air traffic control, and one regulatory agency in the FAA.
Reichow, who was the vice president of manufacturing at Tesla before becoming a venture capitalist, says that Eclipse wanted to invest in autonomous aircraft and was looking for a strong team that had deep experience in building autonomous aerospace systems — and in actually shipping real products.
“Reliable has a very thoughtful, pragmatic approach that is very different from a lot of companies that are new grads wanting to build an air taxi,” Reichow said. “The world of air cargo is the place to start.”