Friday, August 12, 2022
HomeRoboticsAutonomous plane take off amid labor shortages

Autonomous plane take off amid labor shortages


Merlin Labs

A Boston-based company that brings autonomy to existing fixed-wing aircraft is announcing a large funding round just as pressing nationwide pilot shortages draw renewed interest in autonomous flight. Merlin Labs, which we've been tracking for their move toward pragmatic autonomous air travel, is banking a $120 million Series B round from Snowpoint and Baille Gifford, with major participation by existing investor GV.  

Last year Merlin teamed up with Dynamic Aviation, the owner of the world's largest private King Air fleet, to bring autonomy to 55 airplanes. The company is part of a small but active flock of companies scrambling to bring autonomy to aviation.

The company's autonomy platform is aircraft-agnostic, focuses on onboard autonomy rather than remote piloting, and is being integrated into a wide variety of public- and private-sector aircraft. Applying autonomy to existing aircraft shortens the time to market considerably compared to airframe-up development.

Another company, Xwing, is using a similar strategy to introduce autonomous technology for regional air cargo, an overlooked space in the global race for autonomy but, with its sub-500 mile predictable routes and significant commercial importance, an intriguing entry point for autonomous air travel. Xwing is betting it can gain ground amid growing unmet logistics demand using its human-operated software stack that integrates with existing aircraft to enable regional pilotless flight.

Both Merlin and Xwing are pouncing into the market at a time when ambitious new airframe designs, including vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, are entering advanced trials. Companies competing in this space, often dubbed “urban air mobility,” include Overair and Archer, among others. 

Late last year, Merlin announced that it had achieved approval of its certification basis for a proprietary takeoff to touchdown autonomy system as part of a joint project with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Also in 2021, the company announced a partnership with Ameriflight, the largest Part 135 cargo airline in the United States. 

Interestingly, the United States Air Force has expressed strong interest in Merlin's autonomous technology. The company is partnering with the USAF to bring autonomy to the service's C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, the most-used cargo platform in the fleet. Mirroring its civilian applications, Merlin will help the Air Force enhance safety and operational flexibility while boasting increased safety and the possibility of crew reductions in the face of a global shortage of pilots.

Air travel is often an overlooked space in the race for autonomous mobility, but labor dynamics and soaring costs have placed increased emphasis on air space autonomy.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Most Popular

Recent Comments