FAA looks to Merlin for autonomous cargo flights

Photo: Business Wire

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has awarded Merlin, a developer of autonomous flight technology for fixed-wing aircraft, a $1m contract to demonstrate its highly automated flight control system.

Merlin has developed an integrated hardware and software system known as the Merlin Pilot.

The FAA demonstration will see the system fly an aircraft in conjunction with a safety pilot monitoring the experimental flight control system.

Merlin Pilot will be the first autonomous piloting system to be integrated into the US’s National Airspace System (NAS).

Merlin will be working with the FAA-designated University of Alaska Fairbanks unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) test site and Everts Air, a Fairbanks, Alaska-based carrier.

Flight trials will take place along three test routes, all originating at the UAS test site but connecting out to separately to Fort Yukon, Galena, Prudhoe Bay, Huslia and Tanana.

They are due to begin in the second quarter of this year.

The aim is to show the feasibility of operating autonomous flights to currently under-served, rural areas of Alaska, with the aim of boosting the last-mile supply chains in these areas and cutting the safety risk for pilots.

“Alaska’s terrain and inclement weather can challenge the most experienced pilots,” observed Cathy Cahill, director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.

“And yet remote communities rely on air cargo deliveries for vital supplies such as milk, mail, and medicine.

“Working with Merlin on these flight trials benefits our residents and provides data with each flight that will create not only a safer airspace in Alaska but technology that is applicable worldwide.”

Cahill continued: “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.”

Matthew George, co-founder and chief executive of Merlin, added: “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.

“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.

“Alongside the FAA, and our operating partner Everts Air Cargo, we’re thrilled that the Merlin Pilot will soon be learning in a real world, complex environment.”

Last year, Merlin announced a $105m Series B financing with funding from the United States Air Force, the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority and the FAA (a Series B financing is a second round of funding for a business).

The finance thus provided allowed Merlin to continue developing Merlin Pilot system.




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