Autonomous aircraft developer wins Mitacs honour

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by Emily Atkins

Jeremy Wang is on a mission to prove that planes no longer require humans in the cockpit.

Jeremy Wang

His ground-breaking work to develop Canada’s first autonomous cargo airline — which is on track to start a commercial pilot project by the middle of next year — has earned Wang an award and $5,000 from Mitacs, an organization which supports Canadian innovation.

In recognition of his efforts to advance self-flying planes through his Toronto-based startup Ribbit, Wang — who earned his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at University of Waterloo and now serves as Ribbit co-founder and COO — was presented with the Mitacs Change Agent Entrepreneur Award on May 18 at a ceremony in Waterloo, Ontario.

“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. Wang, along with Ribbit co-founder and CEO Carl Pigeon, started his careers developing drone technology but soon recognized the need to focus on full-size aircraft to truly make an impact on transportation at scale.

“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,” he explained.

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.

“Our plane taxied out from the hangar, went to the runway, took off, flew around, landed and went back to the hangar, and the safety pilot did nothing but sit in the cockpit,” said Wang, adding that the long-term goal is to equip airlines with fleets of the company’s autonomous planes, which can safely fly using existing airport infrastructure.

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. By removing the pilot, the planes have more room for cargo and eliminate scheduling barriers, freeing airlines to capitalize on nearly 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.

Ribbit autonomous aircraft

“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 six 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 already approved for flight testing without a human safety pilot on board and expects to complete its first truly autonomous flight next summer.

“Our technology has been tested, the regulatory framework is in place and there’s a real need for this. It’s time for autonomous air cargo to take flight,” he said.

Wang is one of five winners of the Mitacs Entrepreneur Award who are being recognized for their efforts to turn their research into an innovative business that impacts the lives of Canadians.

“As a graduate student, I had a very strong technical background, but I also believed that my impact on the world should be driven through entrepreneurship,” said Wang.

“Mitacs orchestrated the bridge between academia and industry to facilitate a unique career path, allowing me to work as an intern at my own company while I simultaneously completed my degree.”

“A successful innovation economy cannot exist without entrepreneurs. Startups drive innovation in Canada, they dream big and push boundaries, bringing research from ideation to commercialization,” said Mitacs CEO John Hepburn.

“Mitacs is extremely proud to play a role in supporting small businesses and emerging entrepreneurs through our continued investment in talent, research, and development. It is a pleasure to celebrate the incredible accomplishments and impact of our 2023 Mitacs Entrepreneur Award winners.”