Merlin Developing Autonomous Flight Tech With Air Force Pilot Input

Company engineers observed pilots as they performed a variety of tasks, collecting data to identify where automation can be most helpful.

Merlin Pilot Air Force autonomous KC-135 Stratotanker

Merlin engineers Josie Cater, Nick Lepore, and Carl Pankok stand in front of a modified U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker. [Courtesy: Merlin Labs]

This month, engineers from Boston-based Merlin Labs, the developer of a platform-agnostic, takeoff-to-touchdown autonomy system for fixed-wing aircraft, joined U.S. Air Force pilots in the cockpit of a KC-135 Stratotanker.

Over the course of two flights on May 15 and 16 at MacDill Air Force Base (KMCF) in Florida, engineers gathered data that will inform the development of the company’s autonomous flight system, Merlin Pilot. Intended to reduce the workload of pilots amid the ongoing pilot shortage—but not replace them, at least in the short term—the technology has also drawn the attention of government agencies, including the Air Force.

Merlin engineers observed Air Force pilots as they performed various tasks and maneuvers. The goal of the campaign was to identify areas where automation could be most useful for safety, efficiency, and cost savings. Teams gathered data on pilot priorities, for example, to implement automation in a way that could allow pilots to focus on the most critical tasks.

“The data collected during these flights is critical to our phased approach to autonomy, starting with reduced crew operations, and to materially evolving our advanced automation systems,” said Matt George, CEO of Merlin. “Being able to observe multiple aerial refueling flights and see exactly how pilots are focused on critical tasks like take-off, landing, and communications in operational military use cases has given us valuable insight.”

Physical assessments, observations, and crew interviews were conducted to determine how certain KC-135 operations could be integrated into the autonomous system.

The data will further be used to support a contract between Merlin, the Air Force, Air Mobility Command (AMC), and Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) to design, integrate, test, and perform in-flight demos of Merlin Pilot on the aerial refueling tanker. The Air Force previously enlisted Merlin to explore reduced crew capabilities for the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules and is looking to automate other aircraft, such as the KC-46A Pegasus and UH-60A Blackhawk.

The FAA has also shown interest in Merlin, awarding it a $1 million contract for automated cargo network flight trials in Alaska, which the company completed successfully in July. Other aircraft that have been equipped with Merlin Pilot include the Beechcraft King Air, de Havilland Twin Otter, Cessna Caravan, Long-EZ, and Cozy Mark IV.

Merlin is seeking supplemental type certification from the FAA and has already obtained a Part 135 air operator certificate from New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority, which covers air operations for helicopters and small airplanes.

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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.

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