Merlin Labs Nabs Part 135 Air Operator Certification in New Zealand

The Boston-based company says the approval puts it on a viable path to certification and commercial operations for Merlin Pilot, its flagship autonomous flight system.

Federal agencies are beginning to warm up to the idea of fully or partially automated flight.

Boston-based Merlin Labs—the maker of a platform-agnostic, takeoff-to-touchdown autonomy system for fixed-wing aircraft—on Wednesday announced it obtained Part 135 certification from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of New Zealand for future air freight operations in the country. The regulator’s Part 135 covers air operations for helicopters and small airplanes.

Certification of the Merlin’s flagship Merlin Pilot system follows U.S. military airworthiness approvals for fellow automated flight systems providers Xwing and Reliable Robotics, handed out by the U.S. Air Force.

“Achieving an organizational Part 135 certification gives us the opportunity to work with a forward-thinking regulator as well as leverage New Zealand as a sandbox for our current and future products,” said Matt George, founder and CEO of Merlin. “This milestone enables us to continue progressing our technical maturity, ultimately validating the safety and operational effectiveness of the Merlin Pilot for [CAA] Part 23 certification and beyond.”

Merlin’s Part 135 certificate will allow it to perform critical data collection flights on certain regional freight routes following CAA product certification of Merlin Pilot. The company achieved a state of involvement (SOI) 1 milestone for the system in May, putting it on “a viable path to certification and commercial operation,” it said.

According to Merlin, data collected on those freight routes will be essential for “future development decisions that will be implemented globally.” The findings will also support Merlin Pilot certification with both the CAA and FAA, it said.

The company’s Part 135 certification will further allow it to leverage its dedicated test facility in Kerikeri, New Zealand, opened in May, for current and future products once they’re certified.

Merlin said it has made notable progress on its organizational and product certification since its Project Specific Certification Plan (PSCP) was approved by the CAA—in partnership with the FAA—in 2021. At the time, it claimed to be the first company to reach an agreement with a regulator on an approach to certification for autonomous aircraft tech.

Since then, Merlin was contracted by the FAA to perform what it said was the first air cargo network trials flown by a non-human pilot, which it completed successfully in Alaska in July.

The company also has a relationship with the U.S. Air Force. Last week, the two agreed to conduct in-flight demonstrations of Merlin Pilot aboard a KC-135 Stratotanker, which is used by the military for aerial refueling. Those trials will begin next year. The exercise is a follow-up to a 2022 Air Force contract to test the system on a single-pilot Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules, which is normally commanded by two pilots.

Through innovation arm AFWERX, the Air Force is also collaborating with autonomous flight systems providers Xwing and Reliable Robotics. Both firms were approved to fly in unrestricted airspace in the past 30 days as the military and FAA begin to ramp up their pursuit of autonomy.

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