It’s 2020, and while the skies aren’t full of flying cars like we thought it would be by now, something else straight out of science fiction just got closer to reality: pilotless cargo planes delivering whatever stupid shit you ordered online.
FedEx is partnering with Reliable Robotics to incorporate the firm’s unmanned aircraft into its delivery fleet, FedEx CEO Fred Smith said during an annual stockholder meeting last week that has largely flown under the radar.
Reliable Robotics, an aviation startup run by former Tesla and SpaceX engineers, completed test flights for two of its remote-piloted aircraft models last month, per a company press release. According to Federal Aviation Administration documents, FedEx now owns the larger model of the two, the Cessna 208 Caravan or C208, a single-engine plane that can carry up to 14 passengers. You can watch a video of the plane’s fully automated remote landing here.
“This initiative deals with smaller turboprop airplanes and in this case the single-engine C208, which we are looking at putting in very remote and uninhabited areas as part of our network,” Smith said.
FedEx isn’t phasing out its existing delivery aircraft fleet just yet, however. Smith told stockholders that the company’s aircraft crews don’t need to worry about their jobs becoming automated “for the foreseeable future—decades, I would say.”
This partnership is part of FedEx’s larger effort to cut down on delivery costs, especially in that infamous last mile before it arrives at your doorstep, through partially automating its supply chain. On Sept. 19, the air delivery company Wing announced it was teaming up with FedEx Express and other retailers to roll out a pilot program for drone deliveries in Virginia. FedEx also unveiled its in-house fleet of autonomous delivery robots last year to help retailers with same-day and last-mile deliveries.
They’re one of several companies racing to gain a foothold in the automated delivery market. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, and UPS have both already received federal approval for their drone delivery services, and the FAA certified Amazon’s program in August. Reliable Robotics said in its release that it’s “now working with the FAA on incrementally bringing this technology to market,” so it may well be on its way to securing federal approval.