Self-Flying Cessna Plane Could Be the Future of Cargo Carriers

In February 2021, a self-flying Cessna completed a fully automated gate-to-gate flight at an airport in Concord, California, just outside San Francisco. While there was a pilot inside the utility aircraft, he didn’t touch even a single control and only watched over the systems and talked with the air traffic controller. 

Start-up company Xwing has retrofitted a Cessna Grand Caravan 208B with a program that allows it to fly autonomously, with a remote operator monitoring the flight and only taking control if needed. 

During the flight test, Xwing’s control center closely watched critical data, ranging from the plane’s altitude, speed, location, and pitch. 

Xwing founder and CEO Marc Piette said the company spent years “refining” their AutoFlight system to allow retrofitted aircraft to take off, ground taxi, land, and fly autonomously and to be only “supervised from the mission control center through redundant data links.”

Several startup companies are also working on self-flying planes, with many of them retrofitting aircraft rather than building them from scratch. And just like Xwing, many of these tech firms prefer to test their systems in Cessna Grand Caravan with its powerful turboprop engine, low operating cost, and flexibility. 

Other reasons why Cessna Grand Caravans are an excellent prototype for self-flying aircraft systems: 

  • It can serve as a passenger and cargo plane thanks to its additional cargo pods that measure 84 cubic feet. 
  • When used as a passenger aircraft, it can accommodate up to 14 people. 
  • The aircraft’s large and rough-field tires allow it to operate on different surfaces, including grass, gravel, and other rudimentary or makeshift runways. 
  • With a 675-hp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT64-114A engine, the Cessna Grand Caravan is notable for its high cruise speed and payload capacity. 


Self-Flying Planes for Cargo Flights 

Xwing has expressed its plan to market its technology to logistics companies needing a reliable and efficient air cargo solution. Last year, the company delivered 800 lbs. of personal protective equipment to the Navajo Nation in Arizona using an autonomous aircraft that could take off and land without a pilot.

FedEx Corp. is also working with Reliable Robotics, a startup company developing its own self-flying aircraft system. Founded by former engineers from Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the tech firm “autonomously and remotely” landed a Cessna 208 Caravan last June. 

Currently, FedEx Express and other major cargo carriers use Cessna Grand Caravan to reach remote communities where rudimentary runways make it hard or even impossible for other aircraft to land. 

The rugged aircraft is also commonly used by government-subsidized essential air service carriers, such as Air Choice and Southern Airways Express. 


The Economic Impact of Self-Flying Planes 

Xwing says that self-flying aircraft could reduce the operating cost by 20%-30% by eliminating or slashing costs related to pilot salaries and training and night differential expenses. 

While cargo carriers have already expressed their interest in self-flying aircraft, airline manufacturers like Airbus say they are exploring the technology to aid onboard pilots rather than replace them altogether. 

Recently, Airbus conducted a flight test with its Airbus A350-1000 XWB that took off, landed, and taxied autonomously. 

Despite the growing sophistication of self-flying aircraft systems, industry experts, including FedEx CEO Fred Smith, allayed the pilots’ concerns, saying that it would take decades for technology to replace human pilots in large freights and passenger planes.