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Fri, Apr 14, 2023

Merlin to Vet Autonomous Flight System

FAA Awards Boston Company $1-Million

Aviation is the province of Holy Grails. From the Montgolfier and Wright brothers to Yeager,  Armstrong, Rutan, and Musk, no enterprise or industry has so consistently sparked humankind’s collective imagination and compelled its best and brightest to ply their gifts to its advancement.

Comes now the 21st Century and a new Holy Grail—autonomous flight and the vast fortune it promises to lavish upon the company by which it’s perfected and delivered at scale.

In 2020, the global cargo industry—a sector with which autonomous flight has been deemed eminently compatible—topped $110-billion. By 2027, the global cargo market is estimated to generate some $144-billion.

Companies in the hunt for dominance of the autonomous flight sector include Xwing, Reliable Robotics, Pyka, and Volocopter. In 2022, a new dark-horse entrant in the race for autonomous flight came galloping out of Boston, a company with a name lifted from Arthurian and Swearingen legend, a company called Merlin.

In 2022, Merlin announced a $105-million Series B financing campaign and key partnerships with the United States Air Force, the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority, and the FAA. Subject funding and fraternization allowed the company to continue development of its autonomous flight architecture, an integrated hardware and software solution dubbed Merlin Pilot.

On 12 April 2023 it was announced that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had awarded Merlin a $1-million contract for purpose of demonstrating the capabilities of its Merlin Pilot product under the auspices of onboard safety pilots. Flight-testing of the autonomous flight system will be conducted along three test routes, the entirety of which originate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s  FAA-designated UAS test site. The flights will be conducted in cooperation with Everts Air Cargo.

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

Dr. Cahill added: “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 access across our communities”

The Merlin Pilot flight tests are slated to commence in 2023’s second quarter and set out to reach underserved Alaskan regions, thereby enabling improved access to crucial supplies while reducing the safety risks ostensibly incurred by today’s pilots.

Merlin intends to conduct the flight tests with crewed aircraft augmented with the Merlin Pilot system. During initial testing, human safety pilots will monitor the experimental flight control system along routes from Fairbanks to: Fort Yukon, Galena, Prudhoe Bay, Huslia, and Tanana, Alaska.

Merlin co-founder and CEO Matthew George set forth: "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.”

That the Merlin Pilot system heralds the eradication of Alaska’s bush piloting industry—an historic crucible from which skilled pilots have long emerged—is a matter of which neither Mr. George, Dr. Cahill, the FAA, CAA, nor the University of Alaska Fairbanks have deigned to address.



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