UW grad helps invent self-flying plane for a good cause
A self-flying airplane is now a reality thanks to University of Waterloo (UW) graduate Jeremy Wang and his business partner Carl Pigeon. The pair are co-founders of Ribbit, a start-up that is working to sell and develop antonymous airlines.
“There are a number of sensors which you would typically find on a self-driving car,” Pigeon explained, while showing off their self-flying aircraft which currently lives at a hangar in Burlington.
“What we've done is we've developed technology that can be retro fitted to pre-existing conventional aircraft so that those planes can fly autonomously,” Wang added.
Ribbit began as an idea in 2020, investors were confirmed only a year later and they now have five employees – mostly software engineers.
“This is a proof of concept aircraft that we've developed,” Pigeon said pointing to a once two-seater aircraft, which now only has one seat. The second was replaced with a computer they developed themselves which allows the plane to fly on its own.
“There’s a whole bunch of sensors, electronics and software so that that plane can see what’s going on around it and make decisions just like a human pilot would,” Wang explained.
In case of emergency, a rocket powered parachute big enough to float the entire plane is on board.
“The intention is to go to a bigger aircraft, so anywhere from 60 to 20 seat is the sweet spot,” Pigeon said.
For now, a human pilot that doesn’t actually do anything is still needed, due to safety regulations.
“But the plane will taxi on the ground, take off fly around and land all by itself,” Wang said.
The pair met while on the University of Toronto rocketry team, where they developed high powered rockets together.
AWAITING TRANSPORT CANADA APPROVAL
Ribbit is working with Transport Canada to change those regulations and develop an entire airline of autonomous cargo planes.
“Transport Canada's been a great partner for us. They're very progressive when it comes to regulators. They're very supportive of start-ups and we've worked really closely with them to develop the future of regulations and how this will become safe and operational in Canada’s airspace,” Pigeon said. “It’s not fully approved, baby steps, were in the early days of this.”
A pilot-less flight is in the works.
“We've been approved to fly without a pilot on board at a test range in Alberta but there’s still a lot more to go from there,” Pigeon said.
HELPING REMOTE COMUNITIES
Wang said the intention of their self-flying plane is to change the standard.
“Without anybody inside the plane, the whole idea is we can fit more cargo, fly longer hours, and offer more flights,” Wang said.
The goal is to allow cargo delivery to be more accessible and cost effective and to use the technology for good, with a focus on remote northern communities in need.
“We have a number of online retailers and wholesalers that have already signed up in northern Canada and to supply those communities,” Wang said.
“We both saw the need where if we applied autonomy to aviation we could see huge increases in social economical benefit for Canada and everybody else,” Pigeon said.
THE LOCAL CONNECTION
Wang recently received an award and grant in Waterloo from Mitacs, for his work on the project. Mitacs is a non-profit that supports innovation in Canada.
Wang said his time at the UW was pivotal to his success.
“I don’t think there’s any other university in Canada that quite has the same level of support for really deep graduate level research as well as support for entrepreneurship,” he said. “Those historically are seen as two mutually exclusive paths but at [The University of] Waterloo they're kind of seen as one so that was the thing that made the difference.”