Autonomous aviation company Xwing will work with NASA to create an infrastructure to support autonomous aircraft safety systems. Most hear NASA and naturally think of space exploration, but the agency might be able to facilitate competing aviation companies to collaborate on certain projects.
Xwing ground and flight operations data will be shared in the US National Airspace System (NAS), which NASA will provide risk assessments for. The SWS project also has a concentrated focus on the changes in aviation that rely on digital and data-driven information - and NASA will keep aviation safety at the forefront during the digital transformation.
If autonomous flights become more common, ensuring the industry has pilot/operator certifications, a new infrastructure, and safety data are all super important considerations. Flight hazards such as vision-based landing and runway detection will be important for safe processes involving aircraft localization.
Researchers will also take a holistic approach to aviation, finding technological and legislative hiccups that may prevent autonomous adoption in the skies. For example, there is a tiny fraction of airports that have the appropriate instrument landing system (ILS) category classification approaches suitable for autonomous landing.
The NASA System-Wide Safety (SWS) program wants to investigate how pilotless aircraft could impact national airspace, then design safety plans. As noted by Misty Davies, SWS Project Manager at NASA:
"NASA focuses its research and technology transfers to have a real impact, and this will help NASA understand the real-world challenges that industry is facing. Emerging aviation relies heavily on advanced automation to ensure safety, and Xwing is working to bring novel, safe aviation opportunities to the American public."
Xwing completed an autonomous gate-to-gate cargo flight in 2021, using a Cessna 208 Caravan airplane retrofitted with its Superpilot system. The company aims for autonomous cargo flights from smaller airports by 2025 - which may prove to be an effective test category, because packages and mail don't care if a pilot is in control of the plane or not.