Bay Area company's pilotless plane takes historic 1st flight

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Friday, December 8, 2023
Bay Area company's pilotless plane takes historic 1st flight
Mountain View-based Reliable Robotics' autonomous caravan aircraft took its historic first flight over Northern California last month.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (KGO) -- A historic flight was made right here in the Bay Area with technology created by a local company.

Commercial pilot and engineer Danah Tommalieh's passion for aviation runs deep.

"I grew up next to a small airfield in Southern California. And I used to watch the small Cessna 172s come in and land," she said, "I thought, 'You know, why not?' When I was picking a career."

Last month, she was part of history operating a Cessna 208B caravan without a human being on board.

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Soon if you look up in the South Bay, you may see the Pathfinder 1, an enormous 400-foot-long electric airship that "looks like a Goodyear blimp on steroids."

The plan: to be able to carry around 3,000 pounds of cargo or 12 passengers.

Tommalieh did all of her work from a control center in Mountain View, 50 miles away from the plane.

"We operated it out of Hollister Municipal Airport and basically the taxi, the takeoff, the cruise, the landing, all of that was over a scale of about 12 minutes for the uncrewed portion," Tommalieh said.

Reliable Robotics is the company behind the autonomous flight system.

Though they've flown a smaller plane without a pilot on board in 2019.

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They say the Nov. 21 flight was the first time a cargo plane of this size was operated remotely by a private company.

"A system like ours will go a long way to save lives and prevent accidents," said Robert Rose, Reliable Robotics' CEO, "In order to move the pilot out of the plane and into a control center, you need to have a more advanced navigation system, you need to be able to automatically land, you need to be able to automatically take off and auto taxi and many accidents on small aircraft today or are due to issues during those phases of flight."

Rose and Tommalieh said that dozens of flight tests and simulations have been conducted, testing out different scenarios.

The system also has backup technology should something impact the primary string.

Though Rose says he sees the system rolled out more broadly for cargo first, the hope is that it could one day transition to passenger aircraft.

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Something he said could facilitate better travel between smaller airports.

"I have family that lives up in Oregon and there's not really commercial air service to get to go visit them, but there are small airports," Rose said, "So if we had small aircraft that had this level of automation, I could say on a moment's notice, go visit my family go visit my in-laws and instead of needing to fly out of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, we could take a flight out of Palo Alto or Reid Hillview or San Carlos."

With pilots like Tommalieh's expertise still needed to operate the system, Rose said he sees it adding jobs, not taking them away.

"I think we're going to have factor 10, factor 100 more aircraft as we move into the next decade," he said, "So I see this as a growth opportunity for aviation."

The technology still has to be certified by the FAA, something Rose says they're well on their way to doing, with the agency recently accepting a certification plan for the system in June.

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