More Autonomous Flight Progress in 2021

While it’s tempting to leave 2020 entirely in the rearview, the pandemic has underscored my belief about the value of work we do here at Acubed to advance autonomous flight capabilities. How so? There has been a clear multiplication of use cases requiring fully autonomous vehicles—drones, air taxis, cargo or larger commercial aircraft—to move goods and people around the world in safe and efficient ways.

I am heartened by the rapid advances I’m seeing in autonomous capabilities, and particularly by the progress we’ve made in just one year. Back in July 2020, we announced that we had officially gotten the Acubed Flight Test Lab off the ground. The aim was to fly in and out of local airports to collect as much data as possible to feed our machine learning system and improve their performance.

Our flight cadence has continued to rise since we first took to the skies, and we are rapidly scaling our data collection capabilities and advancing our algorithms through an increased variety of settings, such as for a greater diversity of weather conditions, time of day, and airport locations. Expanding the capabilities of our systems to perform in an increased variety of settings is not just a nuance to our data collection pipeline—it’s a huge transition for us as our system becomes increasingly capable in service of large commercial aircraft.

Since the start of Wayfinder (born out of the Vahana air taxi as many readers will recall) we have become increasingly more integrated into the global Airbus organization. Over the last two years, we delivered autonomous systems to the ATTOL project at Airbus. In many ways, for us, ATTOL was a test of our ability to aim higher, to work as one with a global team at Airbus headquartered in Europe and to commit to the larger autonomous flight development ambitions that the company is pursuing.

While nothing can replace the final integration and testing of our autonomous systems into large commercial aircraft, the approach with our flight test lab keeps us nimble and cost effective, and is an essential part to keeping the broader autonomous systems program ahead of the curve. On our small aircraft, we’re able to make adjustments and test multiple times a day, which means we are able to build foundations for a robust autonomous system that in time can serve large commercial aircraft.

What is our outlook and plan for this year?

  • We will continue to grow our team. As our data collection scales, so too does our need for data analysis. We will expand our team this year to meet the demands of our data pipeline: This, as they say, is a good problem to have.
  • We will pursue variable conditions in which to acquire data. While the consistently beautiful weather of Northern California is no doubt a boon for some experimental aircraft programs, it can actually be a challenge for data acquisition! This year, we’ll focus on hunting out “bad” weather and night conditions so as to acquire more varied data.
  • We will prepare for aircraft deployment. Employing a data collection strategy similar to what is used in the autonomous car industry, each aircraft that our system is deployed on becomes an asset in our data collection network. This year we will lay the groundwork to be deployed across fleets in the coming years in collaboration with exciting new activities being launched at Airbus.

Last year taught all of us that sometimes things just do not go to plan. Yet we are all afforded the ability to prepare for the unexpected, and that is what we will spend 2021 doing in the pursuit of safe, scalable autonomous systems for commercial aircraft. We look forward to ensuring that when larger autonomous systems endeavors take to the skies again, we are part of the solution in preparing these aircraft for the variability that the real world inevitably provides.

More to come as we advance towards our mission of delivering a 21st century human-machine interface and optimization of aircraft operations.

- Arne Stoschek