USAF and Xwing demonstrate fully autonomous cargo aircraft

The AFWERX Autonomy Prime program tests an uncrewed future for logistics support.

A joint program by the U.S. Air Force and Xwing Corporation has demonstrated fixed wing cargo carrying capability in a point-to-point flight between two airbases using a specially modified Cessna 208B Grand Caravan.

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Episode Transcript:

In modern conflict, it’s axiomatic that logistics wins wars. And in an interconnected global economy, it also wins the peace.

In airfreight alone, just under 16 million metric tons of cargo was flown worldwide in 2023. That represents a 335 billion dollar market, and it’s not just dedicated cargo operators that benefit. For many airlines, cargo represents up to one-third of revenue. It’s a lot of freight, requiring lots of airframes, engines and, of course, pilots.

The U.S. Air Force is naturally interested in the problem of air transport efficiency and has been investigating the possibilities of autonomous operation for years. The AFWERX innovation unit of the Department of the Air Force operates a research program called Autonomy Prime, which partners with private industry to accelerate testing of autonomous systems. A major breakthrough in the program was demonstrated on January 26, when program partner Xwing Inc. successfully completed a fully autonomous logistics mission, carrying cargo from March Air Reserve Base in Riverside California to McClellan Airfield near Sacramento.

The cargo run was performed using no human intervention at all. Advanced autopilot technology has been around for decades, as have drone fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, so what makes this important?

Two aspects of the Autonomy Prime program are significant. The first is that point-to-point autonomous air cargo is instrumental to the Air Force Agile Combat Employment concept, which requires aircraft and equipment that are dispersed from major hub bases to smaller airfields to improve survivability. Doing this with crewed aircraft would be impossible without serious impact on conventional air transport operations.  

The second, and possibly more significant impact, is that the Xwing test aircraft is not a prototype or military airplane. It’s a civil registered Cessna 208B Grand Caravan. The 208 is a popular light passenger and cargo aircraft already in extensive use by American cargo carriers for regional distribution, with a 3,000-pound payload. Technically, this means that the Xwing system has proven integration with aircraft systems in standard, certified designs, including conventional, mechanically operated control surfaces and standard engine management systems.  

The implication is clear: with the system already functioning well in an airframe already in common use by package delivery operators all over America, the replacement of the pilot in regional operations may only be a matter of FAA approval. The test aircraft has been flying autonomously since 2020 and has 500 autonomous hours across 250 flights.  

The future? A possible development is the automation of conventional aircraft to form optionally piloted systems, or cargo operators could use conventional flight crew for controlled airspace, then fly the final leg of the flight to remote destinations autonomously.

The end of the human pilot has been predicted for decades, and although the true robot airplane isn’t here yet, Autonomy Prime is bringing it one step closer. 

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.