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 proceeds will be used to accelerate mass-production of the company’s products and the hiring of new engineering talent.
Autonomous transportation is the pursuit of countless companies in aviation, including 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 in costs. Pandemic headwinds have reinvigorated the search for cost-cutting opportunities; Statista estimates that in 2020, airlines will lose at least $314 billion in revenue.
In search of an expeditious path to market, companies like Xwing, Airbus, Elroy Air and have explored retrofitting existing aircraft rather than developing hardware from scratch. Reliable is a proponent of this approach — the startup, 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’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 conducted an unmanned test flight over a “populated region” without a pilot onboard.
Reliable says that 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, the company 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’s product falls under the FAA’s Part 25 and Part 23 rules, which apply to airplanes weighing less than 19,000 pounds and with 19 or fewer passenger seats designed to take trips ranging 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 pre-planned route.
Elroy Air, which is developing hybrid-electric aircraft for cargo transportation, is among the handful of startups beyond Reliable 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’s ability to deliver its platform to goods-transporting customers ahead of passenger flight operators. He notes that he formerly lead 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’s other founding members include veterans from Boeing and Airbus.
Reliable’s $33.5 million came from two funding rounds led by Lightspeed Ventures and Eclipse Ventures, respectively. Pathbreaker Ventures and Teamworthy Ventures also participated.