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Sky’s the limit for autonomous flight tests at Burlington Airpark

Self-flying planes open up opportunities for commercial scheduling, reliable service to remote communities

The future of flying without a pilot in the cockpit is now within reach, thanks in part to the bright minds of two young men at the Burlington Airpark.

Jeremy Wang, 28 and Carl Pigeon, 32, have successfully used their plane to take off, fly and land using the autopilot system they developed. 

They co-founded Ribbit with the goal of using self-flying commercial cargo planes to bring lower cost, reliable transportation to remote locations across the country as early as next year. Ribbit will soon be a cargo airline that operates fleets of self-flying airplanes.

The project also has a humanitarian aspect, as it uses bold ideas to solve real problems, right here in Canada.

Last summer at the Burlington Airpark, after 14 months of development, Ribbit demonstrated the ability to take off and land using its in-house autopilot system while the onboard safety pilot monitors the flight.

“Basically, it’s like a self-driving car, the only difference is we’re in the air,” Pigeon said.

Pigeon sits in the cockpit, while Wang stays on the ground behind a desk of monitors along with other software engineers. Their five-person business team is working to ensure a more reliable source for food and medicine in places like Nunavik, Indigenous communities living off reserve in the Far North, Sioux Lookout and Thompson, to name a few.

The pair met while participating in drone and rocket competitions while in university and became fast friends.

Wang completed a BASc in Engineering Science at the University of Toronto and a PhD in Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Waterloo, 2022, while Pigeon has his MASc Aerospace Engineering, University of Toronto 2016.

Currently, Wang is a co-founder and COO of Ribbit, while Pigeon serves as CEO and sits in the cockpit during test flights; he’s been flying since he was 16 through the 87 Eagle Squadron Air Cadets in Welland. Through the air cadets, he got two pilot licences – glider and private – and a trip to France.

“If anyone is interested in flying, I highly recommend they join the air cadets,” Pigeon said.

An onboard computer controls the aircraft while the safety pilot – Pigeon – monitors the flight.

And that suits Wang just fine, considering he didn’t even like to fly just a few short years ago. He’s on the ground behind the controls, assessing things like the environment, other aircraft, and determining a safe level to land.

They try to get out three times a week during the summer, but only manage about one or two flights every two months in the winter.

Their goal isn’t to get to destinations faster; instead it’s about the greater benefit - especially to communities in Canada’s Far North, middle America, and anywhere Amazon Prime can’t ship to in a day, either here or abroad in remote Caribbean islands, and even as far away as the Outback in Australia.

“It’s nice to have autonomous planes, it’s going to be a real game-changer,” Wang added. “There will be a 70 per cent cost reduction. Say you wanted to do a ski-trip to Collingwood, that would be accessible to anyone, not just those with money.”

Ribbit has been awarded grants and they also have investors backing their business, which incorporates software and sensor retrofits for the charter air market.

They are retrofitting existing fixed-wing planes with the technology that allows them to taxi, take off, fly and land autonomously. With no pilot, the planes have more room for cargo and eliminate scheduling barriers, freeing airlines to take advantage of some 15,000 under-utilized private airports across North America to provide more direct, non-stop flights between remote destinations, without the need to schedule pilots or travel through major airport hubs.

“When we first got started, we kept hearing from people in Northern Canada about how terrible the supply chains were,” said Wang. “Flight schedules were infrequent and unreliable, and they wanted more options.”

Recently, the company signed letters of intent with several leading online wholesaler/retailers serving the north and is working with Transport Canada to achieve regulatory approval to move forward with commercial flights. The company is approved for flight testing without a human safety pilot on board and expects to complete its first truly autonomous flight this year.

They agree that their universities have been very generous with the new start-up and they’ve built a network of investors.

In recognition of Wang’s efforts to advance self-flying planes he was presented the Mitacs Change Agent Entrepreneur Award of $5,000 on May 18 at a ceremony in Waterloo. He was one of five winners of the Mitacs Entrepreneur Award who were recognized for their efforts to turn research into an innovative business that impacts the lives of Canadians.

Mitacs is Canada’s leading innovation organization that boosts economic growth and innovation by helping companies solve business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.

“Our goal is to rewire the transportation network to be faster, more efficient and more accessible to remote communities that right now don’t have reliable air transportation,” said Wang. 

Initially, the pair looked at developing drone technology but soon recognized the need to focus on full-size aircraft to make a difference.

“We’re not talking about shuttling executives from city to city, we’re talking about providing basic access to reliable transportation so that people living in rural and remote communities can get necessities like food and medicine on time,” Wang explained.

Working in collaboration with Transport Canada, Ribbit completed its first gate-to-gate, hands-free flight in 2021 – the first in Canada – and has logged more than 200 hours of successful autonomous flight since then, always with Pigeon on board.

Their plane taxied out from its Burlington hangar, went to the runway, took off, did a loop around, landed and went back to the hangar, while Pigeon sat with his hands in his lap. 

The long-term goal is to equip airlines with fleets of the company’s autonomous planes, which can safely fly using existing airport infrastructure.

Wang and Pigeon filmed their autonomous flight, and it can be watched here: