Xwing, a US-based startup working on autonomous flight systems, has won a contract with the US Air Force (USAF) to develop military cargo applications of its technology.
The Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract was as part of the of the US Air Force’s AFWERX Prime program. Launched in 2020, the AFWERX Prime program aims to identify promising dual-use technologies and accelerate their development by leveraging the capabilities and resources of the US military.
In this particular case, Xwing will be testing remotely operated aircraft capable of flying in hostile environments without having to expose valuable crews to high-risk scenarios.
The project will involve a 21-month trial period in Northern California, during which Xwing and the USAF will collect a large amount of mission data and feedback from pilots and commanders to continue perfecting the system.
The aircraft type selected as a testbed is going to be the same Cessna 208B that Xwing has already been using in prior trials, such as a full autonomous gate-to-gate flight it conducted in California in 2021.
In this regard, although Xwing technology allows for fully automated flight, its use in commercial applications would still require a degree of human intervention (which could be via a remote link), in order to comply with air traffic control requirements, which involve voice over radio communication. This is a limitation that the military are unlikely to face when operating real frontline missions.
In conversation with AeroTime, Xwing’s CEO, Marc Piette, explained that one of the features that sets Xwing’s technology apart is the capacity to operate in GPS-denied environments. In other words, the autonomous flight system in the aircraft is not dependent on GPS access to be able to determine its position and movements, since it gathers and processes data through a whole range of other data-collecting sensors.
In April 2023, Xwing started with the Federal Aviation Administration the first ever standard certification process for an unmanned commercial aircraft.