Waterloo has gained lots of recognition for its work to establish Canada’s first autonomous automobiles in recent years, but one alumnus is taking things to new heights.
Jeremy Wang, who earned his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Waterloo, is on a mission to prove that planes no longer require humans in the cockpit.
“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 in a press release, prior to being honoured with a Mitacs Entrepreneur Award at the university’s Federation Hall last week.
Wang, the COO and co-founder of Ribbit, said the goal of his company is to rewire the transportation network to be faster, more efficient and more accessible to remote communities that don’t have reliable air transportation.
Wang, along with Ribbit co-founder and CEO Carl Pigeon, started their careers developing drone technology but recognized the need to focus on full-size aircraft to truly make an impact on transportation at scale.
“We realized if you can take a pilot out of the plane, you can fit more cargo in the plane, you can fly long hours, you can offer more places, more destinations, and you can do that while keeping your unit economics or unit costs pretty low,” Wang told the Chronicle.
The company’s design is based on retrofitting existing fixed-wing planes with a technology stack that allows them to taxi, take off, fly and land autonomously, eliminating scheduling barriers, freeing airlines to capitalize on thousands of underutilized 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 hubs.
Working in collaboration with Transport Canada since its inception in 2020, Ribbit completed its first gate-to-gate, hands-free flight in 2021 — marking a first for Canada — and has demonstrated nearly 200 hours of successful autonomous flight since then, always with a human safety pilot on board.
The company, which operates out of a private airstrip in Burlington, has signed letters of intent with six leading online wholesalers/retailers serving the north and is working to achieve regulatory approval to move forward with commercial flights, but it will likely be at least 10 years before such a service would begin and even longer before it’s more broadly adopted, Wang said.
There there are other companies currently working to develop autonomous airplanes in the U.S. Ribbit is working alongside dozens of other companies and investors and is supported by the National Research Council of Canada, among other government-funded organizations.
The company is already approved for flight testing without a human safety pilot on board.
“In the next 12 months, actually, we’re planning on starting to test commercial pilot flights in northern Canada, Wang said. “The reason is that in northern Canada, not only is there a dire need for the service, but there’s less air traffic. There are less built-up areas in the ground. So the operational risk profile is a lot lower.”
The company has already conducted thousands of hours of flight simulation and remains focused on solving challenges related to collision detection and radio communication.
“Pilots normally talk to each other and talk to air traffic controllers in order to manage the airspace, and that capability has to be in place for a plane that has autopilot inside as well. So in the near term, we’re addressing that by having a human pilot on the ground that is not only monitoring the flight the entire time, but can also speak on behalf of the airplane and communicate with other airspace users,” Wang said.
“We’ll see if machine learning makes its way into that domain of the problem space, but it’s an area that’s challenging.”
Wang’s groundbreaking work has earned him a prestigious award and $5,000 from Mitacs, Canada’s leading innovation organization that boosts economic growth and innovation by helping companies solve business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.
Wang said the support he’s received from the University of Waterloo, its Velocity incubator, and numerous other partners has been instrumental.
“A successful innovation economy cannot exist without entrepreneurs, Mitacs CEO John Hepburn said. “Startups drive innovation in Canada: they dream big and push boundaries, bringing research from ideation to commercialization.”
“Mitacs is extremely proud to play a role in supporting small businesses and emerging entrepreneurs through our continued investment in talent, research, and development.”
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: A University of Waterloo PhD grad recently received a Mitacs Entrepreneur Award for his work developing Canada’s first autonomous cargo airline.