U of W Grad Wins Innovation Award for Landing Canada’s First Gate-to-Gate Autonomous Flight

By: Kw Now Local News
| Published 05/20/2023

First Gate-to-Gate Autonomous Flight: Jeremy Wang (right) and Ribbit Co-founder and CEO Carl Pigeon

U of W Grad Wins Innovation Award for Landing Canada’s First Gate-to-Gate Autonomous Flight

'Jeremy Wang earned his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at University of Waterloo... and he's bent on changing the world of commercial flight.'

Waterloo, Toronto Ontario - Jeremy Wang is on a mission to prove that planes no longer require humans in the cockpit. Wang’s up-and-coming company is on track to use self-flying commercial cargo planes to bring lower cost, reliable transportation to remote Canadian communities as early as next year

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 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.

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 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 their 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.

“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.

Taxi, Take off, Fly around and Land? Seriously? (Yes--Seriously!)

The world is full of skeptics. You'll hear them say, maybe on the ground eventually ... but in the air?

Taxi, take off, fly around, land does sound rather simple. It's almost too simple for many people who have read about the woes of Tesla in autonomous mode, causing crashes, fires and fatalities. But this hasn't discouraged Wang. He admits that achieving a successful flight every time, in all weather conditions, without incidents isn't currently possible. However, his company Ribbit started with a goal and then set out to solve the question, "How do we get there?" Through extensive research and stringent practises, Wang believes they are getting closer every day to their goal.

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.”

About Mitacs

Mitacs empowers Canadian innovation through effective partnerships that deliver solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Mitacs assists organizations in reaching their goals, funds cutting-edge innovation, and creates job opportunities for students and postdocs. A not-for-profit organization, Mitacs is funded by the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon. Learn more at mitacs.ca.