Reliable Robotics lifts $100M to take autonomous cargo planes where none have gone before

When flying cargo from one part of the world to another, you typically need a pilot for two parts: The take-off and the landing. As so elegantly outlined in the 1980 Jim Abrahams movie !Airplane — the rest of the time, you’re pretty much on instruments. Reliable Robotics is aiming to solve that pesky needing-to-have-a-pilot-in-the-plane problem by, instead, putting the pilot on the ground when you need it, and leave the plane to find its destination on its own the rest of the time. Coatue Ventures, Lightspeed Ventures, Eclipse Ventures, Teamworthy Ventures and Pathbreaker Ventures all believe this is the future, to the point of backing the Mountain View, California-based company with a $130 million of total funding. The company today announced its $100 million Series C funding, led by Coatue Management.

The funds will go toward scaling the team and supporting its first aircraft certification program — working toward commercial cargo operations. In the first instance, the company is working on automation systems for existing aircraft. They have been experimenting and developing using a Cessna 172, which started flying unmanned flights a couple of years ago.

Back in September 2019, Reliable Robotics flew a Cessna 172 with no one on board in airspace just outside of San Jose, California. 

The company was founded in 2017, and was operating in stealth mode until last year. Its technology handles all phases of flight, including taxi, takeoff, landing and parking, while licensed pilots remotely supervise the flights from a control center. Reliable Robotics suggests that the systems they’ve developed are able to auto-land on smaller airstrips in rural or remote areas without requiring additional infrastructure or technology to be installed at the airports.

The business case is simple: Pilots are the most expensive aspects of running cargo operations, with similar restrictions to road-based trucking operations: The vast majority of trucking is boring and monotonous work where the drivers are the most common source of failure. In the air, replacing the qualified pilots with autonomous systems that can be overridden from the ground means that the cost goes down, and the utilization of the aircraft skyrockets.

An aircraft flying

Who needs pilots, anyway? Image Credits: Reliable Robotics

“We believe Reliable Robotics is a leader in aircraft automation for commercial aviation,” said Jaimin Rangwalla, a senior managing director at Coatue. “We were impressed by the team’s clear vision, measured certification progress and track record of industry achievement. We are proud and excited to support Reliable’s goal to be the first to deliver FAA-certified, remotely piloted systems to market.”

The company’s main selling point is connecting regional and municipal airports across the country. For starters, the company is focusing on increasing efficiency and decreasing the cost of hauling cargo around. Reliable Robotics also hints at a future where passengers can step aboard the remotely piloted planes. The company is also evaluating emerging electric and hybrid aircraft platforms.

Of course, people are a little twitchy about the safety aspects of self-driving cars — and planes add a literal additional dimension to the mix. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is keeping a close eye on Reliable and other commercial operators in this space, but the agency has greenlit a number of authorizations for experimental unmanned aircraft.

We appreciate our public-private partnership with the FAA and NASA as we work to integrate our Remotely Operated Aircraft System into the airspace. We intend to bring unprecedented safety and reliability to today’s commercial aircraft,” said Robert Rose, co-founder and CEO of Reliable Robotics. “Close collaboration with our public institutions, strong backing from visionary investors and keen interest within the cargo industry further accelerates our mission to expand everyone’s access to air transportation.”