Monday, 15 April 2019

Autonomous aircraft startup relies on Tech engineers to reimagine an industry

Georgia Tech engineering alumni at Xwing include Vlad Popescu, Maxime Gariel, Phillip Jones, and Allen Wu

Imagine a Delta flight from ATL to LAX traveling across country — but without a pilot. The answer to “Who’s flying this plane?” will be “No one.” And that’s by intent. Xwing, a small aviation startup, plans to make this a reality by 2023.  

Now just a couple years old, Xwing is dedicated to lifting barriers to on-demand air transportation, combining software and traditional aviation techniques to reimagination the airline industry through autonomy. It’s no surprise that four Georgia Tech grads got in on the action at the ground floor.

Maxime Gariel (AE Ph.D., 2010), Vlad Popescu (AE Ph.D. 2013), Phillip Jones (ECE Ph.D. 2008) and Allen Wu (AE Ph.D. 2010) all spent time at Tech working closely with the Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering. And they credit Tech with giving them the high-level engineering and critical thinking skills necessary to be part of a company that’s disrupting the industry.

At its core, Xwing develops a suite of technologies for pilotless flight of small passenger aircraft. Founded in 2016 by Marc Piette and based in San Francisco, the startup brings together experts in optionally-piloted vehicles, unmanned systems and certified avionics.  

“We are trying to bring autonomy to passenger-carrying aircrafts,” said Wu, avionics and GNC lead at Xwing. “Hopefully, we can apply some of the latest state-of-the-art, perception-based algorithms to our industry, which is heavily focused on safety critical aspects.”

The aviation industry tends to move at a slower pace, and Xwing is looking to shake things up. As startups continue to innovate, the FAA has been more flexible to help move things along more quickly.

“It’s an exciting time to be in this industry because we are literally creating it,” said Jones, electrical lead for Xwing. “The autonomous airline doesn’t really exist yet, so there’s nothing to disrupt.”

Xwing is adding value to a sector of the industry where there is a skill and capability gap. It’s partnering with companies that have extensive experience building aircrafts. These safe and reliable companies see Xwing as a value add, providing the software and autonomous technologies that help the industry innovate.

“Autonomous flight is not going to happen with just traditional methods,” said Gariel, CTO at Xwing. “Eventually, our startup will be a major provider of autonomous aircraft technology. We are enabling the companies that make the vehicles to remove the pilot from the cabin.”

“Georgia Tech taught me grit and how to apply myself to a target — both of which have been tremendous at Xwing.”

Just last year, Xwing partnered with Bell, a Textron Inc. company — and a good example of a more traditional avionics company — to develop and test unmanned aircraft technology. With the end goal of enabling certification, the focus of the partnership is on tackling the key remaining challenges that prevent routine commercial unmanned aircraft operations. Flight demonstrations are planned for as soon as 2020. Early applications include cargo transport missions for medical facilities, disaster relief and offshore platform supply.

“We are trying to piggy back on existing industry knowledge and bring in new kinds of expertise that our partners don’t have,” said Popescu, COO at Xwing. “It creates a synergy and brings something new to the table for the more established players.”  

When Popescu was offered the role as COO at Xwing, he was working in consulting and looking for a change. With a Ph.D. from Tech in aerospace engineering, he felt that Xwing would be a good fit for him — plus, he would get to work with old classmates from Tech.

“I love the idea of autonomous transportation,” said Popescu. “It feels like the next big thing that will change our lives and the economy at large.”

Popescu also notes the far-reaching effects autonomous flight will have on people. Just like driverless cars, pilotless flight will unlock the economic and social benefits of transporting people who don’t have access to cars and planes. The elderly and those living in rural areas will have an option that helps them feel less isolated. The idea is that autonomous aviation will dramatically increase human mobility and bring people and places closer than ever before.

As COO, Popescu oversees daily operations and business development. After consulting at McKenzie for four years, he wanted to join a team where he could apply a more ambitious, longer-term vision. Having previously worked with clients in the airline industry, he can now take what was once a consultant’s recommendation and actually implement it.  

“I wanted to use my hands and grow a business,” said Popescu. “At Xwing, I have the ability to affect change. And with a startup, you can take a cool idea and be there at the ground level, turning research and technology into a marketable product.”

Popescu credits much of his entrepreneurial attitude to the College of Engineering. While working on his aerospace Ph.D., he learned how to think about problems in a sophisticated way that brings multiple kinds of disciplines together to create new technologies. He also compares writing a thesis to working at a startup.

“Writing a thesis dissertation is a long process, and you have to have the end vision in mind when you start,” said Popescu. “A startup is like that too. You must create a path to get to the end goal. Georgia Tech taught me grit and how to apply myself to a target — both of which have been tremendous at Xwing.”

Jones also found that Tech was excellent preparation for working in a startup, specifically all the hours he spent in the lab with deadlines for flight tests.

“We’d be preparing software and a helicopter for a flight test with a 24-hour deadline,” said Jones. “Most of the time there was a big scramble the day before, and we’d be working until 2 a.m., packing up and then driving to the field for the test flight. Having deadlines and working with a small capable team is almost perfectly replicated in a startup.”

Autonomy is coming — we’ve heard about it for cars, Uber and mass transit. But it’s also coming to the sky thanks to companies like Xwing, soon to provide yet another way to get from point A to point B.



Pilotless flight may be on the horizon, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is ready for it. Consumer perception could be a headwind for companies like Xwing.

  • A recent survey showed that 54% of respondents would be unlikely to take a pilotless flight.
  • Younger respondents aged 18 to 34 are more willing to fly on pilotless flights, as are high-income respondents.
  • Countries showing the greatest likelihood to take a pilotless flight are the U.S. and U.K.
illustration of an airplane, representing pilotless flight