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Merlin Plans the Way Forward

Autonomy Developer Picks Most Wanted

Merlin's completed test flights with the KC-135 have borne just some fruit, with the firm's recent publication of updated tasking for their autonomy development team.

They point to a trio of tasks that they put at the top of their to-do list, including automated checklist procedures, dynamic navigation, and emergency landing. Merlin stressed that they aren't just doing it all in a vacuum either, since they're working with "human pilot expertise to build a comprehensive autonomy framework that underpins the full suite of pilot skills and supports a safer, more scalable and resilient air network."

First off, they want to integrate automated checklist procedures to the entire flight operation, from before startup to post-shutdown. Their system as it stands "seamlessly integrates with cockpit operations" by operating as a digital copilot to provide verbal prompts and "multiple levels of validation on the aircraft's state". It responds to verbal checks by the pilots using language processing tech. Combined with computer vision and access from their ATC comms processing, Merlin expects that the final product will allow humans to keep their attention where it needs to be, and not on clicking boxes as they work their way down the list.

Dynamic replanning is their second focus, as Merlin looks to train their autonomous system on airspace environments and coordination. As it is with human pilots, it's tough to teach how to adapt on the fly, particularly when operating in complex, high-activity environments. The system is meant to handle all phases of flight by monitoring conditions, deconflicting strict no-fly zones from less-strict 'preferred avoidance regions', and routing the aircraft throughout them accordingly. 

Finally autonomous landing remains a popular goal, but Merlin can't just rest on any old garden-variety landing system. They need something fit for hard use, for military ops in a whole range of awkward environments. 

Their system needs to account for varied aircraft states, weights, fuel loads, and conditions, running continuously in the background during normal flight operations. 

"To advance autonomous flight systems, our focus remains on automating pilot skills that enhance efficiency but most importantly, prioritize safety at every stage. Progressing these skills underscores our commitment to gradually integrate automation with human pilots so that eventually these systems can autonomously perform tasks and alleviate the current constraints aviation faces such as pilot availability, training requirements, and crew rest,” said Alex Naiman, Chief Technology Officer.



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