Merlin Labs wants to fill the skies with unmanned planes carrying cargo and passengers
Autonomous flight start-up Merlin Labs is coming out of stealth mode to announce that it has raised $ 25 million in funding from Google Ventures and First Round Capital. The company has also entered into an agreement with aeronautical services contractor Dynamic Aviation to begin bringing its unmanned aircraft technology into commercial service.
Both announcements are the first steps towards Merlin Labs’ larger goal of filling the skies with unmanned aircraft carrying cargo and passengers. As part of its deal with Dynamic, the startup will supply its autonomous flight technology to 55 of the contractor’s King Air jets. Merlin already performs test flights with the first King Air aircraft outside of its dedicated flight facility at Mojave Air and Space Port. Merlin Labs is located in Boston; Los Angeles; Denver; and Auckland, New Zealand.
“What we’re working on is creating a truly self-sustaining digital pilot,” said Matt George, CEO of Merlin Labs. The edge“Either to be able to take this plane and fly it completely without a pilot, but also on larger planes to be able to reduce the crew. So, take existing planes that are already there and allow those planes to fly autonomously.
These are not planes that are manipulated by a remote operator in a land office park somewhere, like a Predator drone, George said. Merlin Labs “don’t believe in remote piloting … we fundamentally believe that the vast majority of range should be on the plane.” If the plane loses signal with the remote operator, then you would have “a huge piece of metal hurtling through the sky,” he added.
Merlin envisions his remote pilots’ role as a supervisor, surveying dozens of aircraft in the sky at once, but leaving the vast majority of tasks, from communicating with air traffic control to navigation, to stand-alone software.
The technology that allows Merlin’s plane to fly unmanned is pretty straightforward, says George. “The reason this range in the air is so much easier is that you have a complete view, at least in the United States, of everything in the sky, with radar on the ground,” he said. he declares. Its planes use the air traffic control network’s radar system to set a safe course. And the digital transponders required as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen system help planes understand where other aircraft are in the sky.
Autonomous flight isn’t as weird as it sounds. It is common for airplanes to be equipped with autopilot technology. Pilots of large commercial aircraft, for example, will typically do the takeoff and then let the software handle the flight and landing.
But automation is also becoming more and more problematic in the world of aviation. In 2016, the Inspector General of the Department of Transport issued a damning report calling on the FAA for failing to ensure pilots received sufficient training in manual flight. In fact, commercial pilots are so dependent on automation that they lack the skills to take over if the system fails, the IG concluded.
This happened again with the fatal crashes of two Boeing 737 Max aircraft in 2018 and 2019. US pilots complained that they were not properly trained to handle all of the Max aircraft’s many automated features.
This is where you run into problems, said George. “When you’ve got some sort of human in charge and the machine is kind of in control, that’s where you get really bad stuff,” he said. Echoing his counterparts in the autonomous vehicle world, George said he believes full autonomy is the only way to ensure these systems are as safe as possible.
Unlike other autonomous flight space companies, like Xwing or Reliable Robotics, Merlin is not looking to become its own cargo carrier, which would require obtaining an FAA Part 135 Air Operator Certificate. . Merlin is working to certify its technology with the agency, but it would rather license its technology to pre-existing freight carriers rather than seek to supplant them.
“We are working in partnership with a group of Port 135 operators across the country,” said George. “But we’re going to focus on what we’re good at, which isn’t how to run an airline, you know, which is pretty difficult.”
George has experience in the world of transport startups, having managed the Bridj on-demand bus service for several years. The company closed in 2017 after failing to strike a major deal with an anonymous automaker. Working with automakers like Ford has allowed him to closely follow the race to deploy autonomous vehicles. And it got him thinking about the areas where autonomy would work best.
“Where will autonomy take effect first?” He asked. “Is he going to be on the ground? Or is the range actually much easier in the air, where you know where everything is? “