FAA Awards Contract for Automated Cargo Network Flight Trials in Alaska

The Merlin Pilot will be the first automated flight control system to secure NAS integration, and aims to reduce workloads amid the ongoing pilot shortage.

The test flights outlined under Merlin’s FAA contract will travel along three routes originating from the Fairbanks, Alaska test site. [Courtesy: Merlin]

Less than a year removed from raising $105 million in fresh funding, Boston-based startup Merlin Labs is looking to shake up the aviation industry with renewed agency approval.

Having already secured partnerships with the U.S. Air Force, New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority and firms like Dynamic Aviation and Ameriflight, Merlin on Wednesday nabbed a $1 million contract from the Federal Aviation Administration to demonstrate Merlin Pilot, a highly automated flight control system designed to soften the workload of—and eventually remove—human pilots. 

The contract further cemented Pilot as the first autonomy system to secure National Airspace System (NAS) integration, pending flight trials that will launch in Q2 2023 from the FAA’s University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) unmanned aircraft systems test site. Those trials will be conducted using crewed aircraft supported by Pilot hardware and software.

"The Merlin Pilot is being developed to make the skies safer and more accessible. These initial flight trials are vital to maturing our in-flight capabilities and it’s rewarding that this work will also serve a material need in the communities of Alaska," explained Matthew George, co-founder and CEO of Merlin. "To date, we have conducted hundreds of missions with our Merlin Pilot on five aircraft types from our dedicated flight test facility in Mojave, California."

The test flights outlined under Merlin’s FAA contract will travel along three routes originating from the Fairbanks test site. The trials will serve five destinations, the furthest being Prudhoe Bay over 375 miles to the north. Onboard safety pilots will monitor the automated flight control system during these trips.

If trials are successful, the technology could be a major boon to Alaska’s transportation network—and to other sparsely populated regions that rely heavily on air cargo.

"Alaska’s terrain and inclement weather can challenge the most experienced pilots," noted Dr. Cathy Cahill, director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the UAF Geophysical Institute. 

"And yet," she continued, "remote communities rely on air cargo deliveries for vital supplies such as milk, mail, and medicine…This program will help thousands of our state’s remote residents to acquire supplies necessary to sustain life and it’s exciting that the advent of new technologies can drive greater equity and access across our communities."

To be clear, Merlin is not attempting to remove the pilot from the cockpit entirely. Rather, according to an interview George gave Forbes in July, the goal is to reduce workloads in an effort to combat the ongoing pilot shortage plaguing passenger and commercial airlines.

The result, sometimes, is one human being able to fly an aircraft designed for multiple pilots. Take, for example, Merlin’s trials with the U.S. Air Force. In August, the two began exploring the possibility of flying Lockheed Martin’s C-130J Hercules—a model designed for two pilots—with just a single human at the controls. 

And in October, the Air Force completed a refueling mission using a KC-46A Pegasus with no copilot on board, leveraging Merlin’s solution to augment a two-person crew consisting of a pilot and boom operator.

Merlin’s semi-autonomous model also benefits the firm from a regulatory standpoint. FAA rules and restrictions around unmanned aircraft remain stringent, which may limit competitors that insist on removing the pilot from the cockpit right away. XWing and Reliable Robotics, two other autonomous aviation firms, come to mind.

At the end of the day, Merlin—like any other company claiming to provide a safe, automated flight control system—will need to prove its technology to the FAA. But if the Alaska trials slated for this year are successful, the sky’s the limit.

Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter