Autonomous Flight Startup Merlin Labs is emerging from stealth mode to announce that it has raised $ 25 million in funding from Google Ventures and First Round Capital. The company has also struck a deal with an aviation services contractor Dynamic aviation to put its pilotless aircraft technology into commercial use.
The two announcements are the first steps toward Merlin Labs’ greater goal of filling the skies with unmanned aerial vehicles carrying cargo and passengers. As part of the deal with Dynamic, the startup will provide its autonomous flight technology to 55 of the contractor’s King Air planes. Merlin is already conducting test flights with the first King Air aircraft outside its dedicated flight facility at the 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 autonomous digital pilot,” said Matt George, CEO of Merlin Labs The edge“Either to be able to take that plane and fly it completely unmanned, but also on larger planes to reduce the crew. So take existing planes that are already there, and allow those planes to fly autonomously. “
These aren’t planes glued to the joystick somewhere by a remote operator in some terrestrial office park, like a Predator drone, George said. Merlin Labs “doesn’t believe in remote pilots … we are fundamentally convinced that the vast majority of autonomy should be on the plane.” If the plane loses the signal with the remote operator, you would have “a huge piece of metal whizzing through the air,” he added.
Merlin sees the role of his remote pilots as a supervisor, monitoring dozens of planes in the air at the same time, but leaving the vast majority of tasks, from air traffic control communication to navigation, to the autonomous software.
The technology that allows Merlin’s plane to fly pilotless is quite simple, George says. “The reason that autonomy in the air is so much easier is that, in the United States at least, you have a full view of everything in the sky, with a radar on the ground,” he said. His planes use the radar system of the air traffic control network to chart a safe course. And the digital transponders needed as part of the NextGen from the Federal Aviation Administration system help the planes understand where there are other planes in the sky.
Autonomous flying is not as bizarre as it sounds. It is common for aircraft to be equipped with autopilot technology. For example, pilots of large commercial aircraft will usually handle the take-off and then let the software handle the flying and landing.
But automation is also becoming increasingly problematic in aviation. In 2016, the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation released a damning report calling the FAA for failing to ensure that pilots receive adequate training in manual flying. In fact, commercial pilots rely so much on automation that they lack the skills to take over if the system fails, the IG concluded.
This came to the fore again with the fatal crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets in 2018 and 2019. US pilots complained that they were not properly trained to handle all the automated functions of the Max aircraft.
This is where you run into trouble, George said. “When you control a human and the machine is sort of under control, then you get really bad things,” he said. Echoing his counterparts in the world of autonomous vehicles, George said he believes full autonomy is the only way to make sure these systems are as safe as possible.
Unlike other companies in the autonomous flight space, such as Xwing or Reliable Robotics, Merlin is not trying to become its own cargo carrier, which would require obtaining a Part 135 aviation certificate from the FAA. Merlin is working to certify its technology with the agency, but it would rather license its technology to existing freight carriers than try to replace it.
“We work with a number of Port 135 operators around the country,” said George. “But we’re going to focus on what we do well, which is not figuring out how to run an airline, you know, which is quite difficult.”
George has experience in the world of transportation start-up and has run the on-demand bus service Bridj for years. The company shut down in 2017 after not making a major deal with an unnamed car company. Working with carmakers such as Ford allowed him to get a closer look at the race to deploy autonomous vehicles. And that got him thinking about where autonomy would work best.
“Where will autonomy take effect first?” he asked. Will he be on the ground? Or is autonomy actually much easier in the air, where we know where everything is? “