Deep Learning Is in the Air How Xwing uses AI for autonomous commercial flights

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Autopiloted aircraft

An aviation startups is using neural networks to put air freight on autopilot.

What’s new: Xwing, a California startup, is test-flying an autonomous pilot system aboard cargo aircraft with an eye toward crewless commercial flights in 2022, the Wall Street Journal reported.

How it works: A suite of models reads sensor data while the plane is in motion. When the models detect another plane or an obstacle, they funnel the information to a rules-based flight control system, which adjusts course, Xwing CEO Marc Piette told The Batch.

  • The company installed its system aboard a fleet of Cessna Grand Caravans modified with extra sensors and computing power. These propeller-driven planes typically carry around 3,300 pounds of freight over relatively short distances.
  • Sensors mounted on the aircraft include electro-optical and infrared cameras, radar, lidar, and GPS. Some sensors capture annotated data; for example, radar labels other aircraft. This allows automated annotation of camera images, enabling the company to generate large datasets quickly and save on manual annotation.
  • Human pilots sit in the cockpit as emergency backups. Xwing hopes to make the system fully autonomous with oversight by people on the ground, who can take control if necessary.

Behind the news: Several companies are racing toward regulatory approval for autonomous freight transport, including Amazon, which this week gained permission to deliver packages using drones. The remaining issues are not technical. Commercial airliners routinely fly on autopilot, and last year a Cessna outfitted with an AI-powered autopilot from Reliable Robotics performed the first autonomous take-off, flight, and landing over an urban area. However, regulations and public concerns have kept human pilots in cockpits. Xwing and its proponents believe that restriction may lift before long, starting with approval for flights over water or uninhabited areas. The company’s reliance on existing aircraft may help expedite the process.

Why it matters: Small planes move cargo between outlying areas and central hubs. Autonomous systems could make service faster, more frequent, and less costly.

We’re thinking: Air, land, or sea: Where will fully autonomous vehicles first enjoy widespread deployment?


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