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I flew on a self-flying plane where pilots sat back as the aircraft taxied, took off, and landed on its own and I'm convinced it's the future of aviation

I flew on a self-flying plane where pilots sat back as the aircraft taxied, took off, and landed on its own and I'm convinced it's the future of aviation
  • Xwing is a startup working to usher in the future of aviation by developing autonomous aircraft technology.
  • Its flagship aircraft is a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan that can taxi, takeoff, and land entirely on its own with no pilot input.
  • I flew on the aircraft and watched as the pilot simply observed while the plane did all the work.

Self-flying aircraft are not the distant reality that many travelers, and pilots, would like to think they are.

Self-flying aircraft are not the distant reality that many travelers, and pilots, would like to think they are.
Airline pilots in an Airbus cockpit. Shutterstock.com
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The aerospace industry is convinced that more automation in the cockpit will increase safety, and numerous companies are developing applications for cargo planes, passenger airlines, and electric vertical takeoff and land aircraft, or eVTOLs.

The aerospace industry is convinced that more automation in the cockpit will increase safety, and numerous companies are developing applications for cargo planes, passenger airlines, and electric vertical takeoff and land aircraft, or eVTOLs.
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Xwing is one startup seeking to crack the code on self-flying aircraft and usher in the future of aviation today.

Xwing is one startup seeking to crack the code on self-flying aircraft and usher in the future of aviation today.
Xwing's autonomous Cessna Grand Caravan 208B. Xwing
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In February 2021, the company completed its first "gate-to-gate" autonomous flight where the aircraft performed all taxi, takeoff, and landing maneuvers on its own, with no pilot input.

In February 2021, the company completed its first "gate-to-gate" autonomous flight where the aircraft performed all taxi, takeoff, and landing maneuvers on its own, with no pilot input.
Xwing's autonomous Cessna Grand Caravan 208B. Xwing
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I flew on Xwing's self-flying plane to see if the tech truly had the potential to replace pilots. Here’s what I found.

I flew on Xwing's self-flying plane to see if the tech truly had the potential to replace pilots. Here’s what I found.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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I arrived at Buchanan Field Airport in Concord, California, a 45-minute drive from San Francisco, to find Xwing and its flagship aircraft, a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan.

I arrived at Buchanan Field Airport in Concord, California, a 45-minute drive from San Francisco, to find Xwing and its flagship aircraft, a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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The Grand Caravan isn't the face of modernity by a long shot, or so I thought. Xwing has retrofitted this 27-old model with self-flying tech that makes it more advanced than some new jet aircraft.

The Grand Caravan isn't the face of modernity by a long shot, or so I thought. Xwing has retrofitted this 27-old model with self-flying tech that makes it more advanced than some new jet aircraft.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Not much has changed inside the aircraft itself, most of the cockpit systems are the same as the day it arrived at Xwing. It was admittedly a more basic setup than I was expecting for a plane that could fly itself.

Not much has changed inside the aircraft itself, most of the cockpit systems are the same as the day it arrived at Xwing. It was admittedly a more basic setup than I was expecting for a plane that could fly itself.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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In the back is a small station where an in-flight engineer monitors the self-flying systems to ensure everything is smooth running.

In the back is a small station where an in-flight engineer monitors the self-flying systems to ensure everything is smooth running.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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The outside of the aircraft also hasn't changed much besides the cameras and light detection and ranging sensors affixed to wing struts. Most of the self-flying tech is stored in the Grand Caravan's pods below the cabin.

The outside of the aircraft also hasn't changed much besides the cameras and light detection and ranging sensors affixed to wing struts. Most of the self-flying tech is stored in the Grand Caravan's pods below the cabin.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Back in the hangar is "mission control" where a remote operator watches over the flight and gives commands to the aircraft.

Back in the hangar is "mission control" where a remote operator watches over the flight and gives commands to the aircraft.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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After some pre-flight checks, I hopped in the co-pilot's seat of the Grand Caravan and it was time to fly. Sitting next to me was Ryan Olson, Xwing's lead test pilot, but his role here was merely to observe and be ready to take over if need be.

After some pre-flight checks, I hopped in the co-pilot's seat of the Grand Caravan and it was time to fly. Sitting next to me was Ryan Olson, Xwing's lead test pilot, but his role here was merely to observe and be ready to take over if need be.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Olson started the engine and it was time for the plane to take over.

Olson started the engine and it was time for the plane to take over.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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A simple press of a button engaged the autopilot and the self-flying tech, allowing for the aircraft to receive commands from mission control.

A simple press of a button engaged the autopilot and the self-flying tech, allowing for the aircraft to receive commands from mission control.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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A blue light on the annunciator panel indicated that the system was active, and the auto pre-flight checks were performed.

A blue light on the annunciator panel indicated that the system was active, and the auto pre-flight checks were performed.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Control surfaces such as the aileron and elevator were automatically checked as the yoke moved forward and backward, and side to side, entirely on its own.

Control surfaces such as the aileron and elevator were automatically checked as the yoke moved forward and backward, and side to side, entirely on its own.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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The aircraft then seamlessly navigated the tarmac and the surrounding aircraft to link up with the taxiway. A taxi speed of around 10 knots was maintained, with the aircraft controlling the throttle.

The aircraft then seamlessly navigated the tarmac and the surrounding aircraft to link up with the taxiway. A taxi speed of around 10 knots was maintained, with the aircraft controlling the throttle.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Even just the taxi was a great example of how the autonomous tech goes well beyond basic autopilot. The Cessna Grand Caravan is as rugged as aircraft come and doesn't normally have the same autopilot functionality as say an Airbus A320 or Boeing 737. But even this was surpassing what airliners can do.

Even just the taxi was a great example of how the autonomous tech goes well beyond basic autopilot. The Cessna Grand Caravan is as rugged as aircraft come and doesn't normally have the same autopilot functionality as say an Airbus A320 or Boeing 737. But even this was surpassing what airliners can do.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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This aircraft knows this airport like Olson knows the back of his hand as pilots took the aircraft across the entire airfield so it could learn how to navigate it. For other airports, Xwing relies on airport data from the Federal Aviation Administration and vendors that is then fed to the aircraft.

This aircraft knows this airport like Olson knows the back of his hand as pilots took the aircraft across the entire airfield so it could learn how to navigate it. For other airports, Xwing relies on airport data from the Federal Aviation Administration and vendors that is then fed to the aircraft.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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As we taxied out, Olson was simply monitoring the systems. He isn't touching the controls or talking with air traffic control, the latter is happening back at mission control where the remote operator handles communications.

As we taxied out, Olson was simply monitoring the systems. He isn't touching the controls or talking with air traffic control, the latter is happening back at mission control where the remote operator handles communications.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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These remote operator stations are the go-between for the aircraft and air traffic control. So why does a self-flying plane need a remote operator?

These remote operator stations are the go-between for the aircraft and air traffic control. So why does a self-flying plane need a remote operator?
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Air traffic control infrastructure in the US is built around voice communications between pilots and controllers. Self-flying planes can't yet understand voice nor fly based on air traffic control instructions, so remote operators have to do the talking and convey the commands to the aircraft.

Air traffic control infrastructure in the US is built around voice communications between pilots and controllers. Self-flying planes can't yet understand voice nor fly based on air traffic control instructions, so remote operators have to do the talking and convey the commands to the aircraft.
An Air Canada jet flies past the control tower at Montreal's Dorval International Airport. Shaun Best/Reuters
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Until the air traffic control system is modernized to include data links between aircraft and controllers, or startups like Xwing find a way for aircraft to understand air traffic control, these remote operators are here to stay. Xwing envisions having one operator for multiple aircraft until the FAA catches up with the new tech.

Until the air traffic control system is modernized to include data links between aircraft and controllers, or startups like Xwing find a way for aircraft to understand air traffic control, these remote operators are here to stay. Xwing envisions having one operator for multiple aircraft until the FAA catches up with the new tech.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Even still, replacing pilots with a remote operator can save an airline thousands on pilot training costs, salaries, and overnight expenses.

Even still, replacing pilots with a remote operator can save an airline thousands on pilot training costs, salaries, and overnight expenses.
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Air traffic control quickly gave us takeoff clearance as we reached the runway and off we went. The Grand Caravan didn't quite line up with the runway centerline but Olson determined it was safe to continue and was ready to take over at any point.

Air traffic control quickly gave us takeoff clearance as we reached the runway and off we went. The Grand Caravan didn't quite line up with the runway centerline but Olson determined it was safe to continue and was ready to take over at any point.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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We quickly reached our rotation speed and were soon airborne. Olson didn't touch the yoke, throttle, or rudder pedals once.

We quickly reached our rotation speed and were soon airborne. Olson didn't touch the yoke, throttle, or rudder pedals once.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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A climbing right turn in the airport's traffic pattern took us directly next to Buchanan Field Airport as we made our way over to Suisun Bay. The aircraft handled the turn beautifully.

A climbing right turn in the airport's traffic pattern took us directly next to Buchanan Field Airport as we made our way over to Suisun Bay. The aircraft handled the turn beautifully.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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A pre-planned route saw us fly around three laps over the bay. This part of the flight is routine for any autopilot and even trainer aircraft equipped with the system can program a flight plan but the aircraft was also managing its speed and mixture settings.

A pre-planned route saw us fly around three laps over the bay. This part of the flight is routine for any autopilot and even trainer aircraft equipped with the system can program a flight plan but the aircraft was also managing its speed and mixture settings.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Precise throttle and mixture settings, something a computer can do more efficiently than a human, can also save on maintenance costs as the engine is being used as optimally as possible. And as less fuel is being burned, it also makes the plane slightly more eco-friendly.

Precise throttle and mixture settings, something a computer can do more efficiently than a human, can also save on maintenance costs as the engine is being used as optimally as possible. And as less fuel is being burned, it also makes the plane slightly more eco-friendly.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Halfway through our flight, the remote operator on the ground told Olson that the navigation system guiding the aircraft was slightly off. It was likely why the aircraft wasn't exactly lined up with the runway centerline on takeoff.

Halfway through our flight, the remote operator on the ground told Olson that the navigation system guiding the aircraft was slightly off. It was likely why the aircraft wasn't exactly lined up with the runway centerline on takeoff.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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It wasn't life or death but system reset was recommended and Olson was forced to take manual control for a few minutes while it was reset. It was a chance for Olson to familiarize himself with flying the self-flying plane.

It wasn't life or death but system reset was recommended and Olson was forced to take manual control for a few minutes while it was reset. It was a chance for Olson to familiarize himself with flying the self-flying plane.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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If at any point the self-flying tech needed to be disengaged, Olson could simply disengage the autopilot or hit the kill switch for the tech itself.

If at any point the self-flying tech needed to be disengaged, Olson could simply disengage the autopilot or hit the kill switch for the tech itself.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Two minutes later, the tech was fully functional once more and it resumed the pre-planned route. It's little glitches like that Xwing is working on perfecting.

Two minutes later, the tech was fully functional once more and it resumed the pre-planned route. It's little glitches like that Xwing is working on perfecting.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Then, it was time to come in for a landing back at Buchanan Field Airport. Once air traffic control gave us instructions for landing, the remote operator relayed it to the aircraft and we descended to 600 feet for a straight-in approach to Runway 19R.

Then, it was time to come in for a landing back at Buchanan Field Airport. Once air traffic control gave us instructions for landing, the remote operator relayed it to the aircraft and we descended to 600 feet for a straight-in approach to Runway 19R.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Instrument approaches are non-existent at this airport so it would be all on the aircraft to perform the landing as we descended closer and closer.

Instrument approaches are non-existent at this airport so it would be all on the aircraft to perform the landing as we descended closer and closer.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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The challenge here would be for the aircraft to differentiate between the parallel runways, 19L and 19R, and the taxiways surrounding them.

The challenge here would be for the aircraft to differentiate between the parallel runways, 19L and 19R, and the taxiways surrounding them.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Once more Olson simply watched as the aircraft performed the complex maneuver. "Look, Ma, no hands!" he said as we neared closer and closer to the runway.

Once more Olson simply watched as the aircraft performed the complex maneuver. "Look, Ma, no hands!" he said as we neared closer and closer to the runway.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Moments later, we had touched down on the runway and began slowing down. The aircraft had greased its own landing.

Moments later, we had touched down on the runway and began slowing down. The aircraft had greased its own landing.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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We taxied off of the runway and while the aircraft would normally be able to taxi on its own back to Xwing, Olson took control because I'd be hopping out to watch the next run from mission control.

We taxied off of the runway and while the aircraft would normally be able to taxi on its own back to Xwing, Olson took control because I'd be hopping out to watch the next run from mission control.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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A camera on the roof of the hangars follows the aircraft while it's in the vicinity of Buchanan Field Airport so the remote operator can have a visual of the aircraft.

A camera on the roof of the hangars follows the aircraft while it's in the vicinity of Buchanan Field Airport so the remote operator can have a visual of the aircraft.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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The remote operator uses foot pedals as push-to-talk buttons to communicate with the onboard pilot and air traffic control.

The remote operator uses foot pedals as push-to-talk buttons to communicate with the onboard pilot and air traffic control.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Similarly, Olson has a dedicated push-to-talk button in the aircraft that goes directly to mission control.

Similarly, Olson has a dedicated push-to-talk button in the aircraft that goes directly to mission control.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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What mission control sees is mirrored in the aircraft itself, visible to the in-flight engineer.

What mission control sees is mirrored in the aircraft itself, visible to the in-flight engineer.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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One screen also shows the aircraft from an exterior view in Microsoft Flight Simulator, for a different perspective of the aircraft.

One screen also shows the aircraft from an exterior view in Microsoft Flight Simulator, for a different perspective of the aircraft.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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We watched as Olson departed once more in the Grand Caravan and performed one loop in the pattern.

We watched as Olson departed once more in the Grand Caravan and performed one loop in the pattern.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Xwing's Grand Caravan isn't just limited to the Bay Area. The company has field-tested its autonomous tech when flying cargo runs of personal protective equipment to the Navajo Nation in Arizona.

Xwing's Grand Caravan isn't just limited to the Bay Area. The company has field-tested its autonomous tech when flying cargo runs of personal protective equipment to the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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The five-hour flight to Arizona was more a test of Olson's observing skills more so than his flying. "I have a pretty easy job when things are working right," Olson said.

The five-hour flight to Arizona was more a test of Olson's observing skills more so than his flying. "I have a pretty easy job when things are working right," Olson said.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Every flight is an opportunity to collect more data for the technology, even our demonstration flight around Concord.

Every flight is an opportunity to collect more data for the technology, even our demonstration flight around Concord.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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Autonomous tech like Xwing's will soon replace pilots, says founder Marc Piette. Cargo planes will come first as it will take longer for human passengers to accept the technology.

Autonomous tech like Xwing's will soon replace pilots, says founder Marc Piette. Cargo planes will come first as it will take longer for human passengers to accept the technology.
Xwing's autonomous Cessna Grand Caravan 208B. Xwing
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But in a few decades, Piette believes all commercial aircraft will become autonomous with no pilots at the controls. Hurdles, such as modernizing air traffic control, remain but it's an inevitability in Piette's eyes.

But in a few decades, Piette believes all commercial aircraft will become autonomous with no pilots at the controls. Hurdles, such as modernizing air traffic control, remain but it's an inevitability in Piette's eyes.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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And from what I saw, the shift from pilots to autonomous tech will happen sooner than later.

And from what I saw, the shift from pilots to autonomous tech will happen sooner than later.
An Xwing self-flying plane demonstration flight. Thomas Pallini/Insider
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