How to build self-flying cargo networks

Deep Dive

If the wizard Merlin was at the cutting-edge of medieval science, then Merlin is at a similar place in aviation today.

The autonomous pilot developer is one of probably four frontrunners in the AI-powered aviation sector, alongside Xwing, Reliable Robotics and Daedelean. And it will be the first to integrate an autonomous system into the US national airspace. That came off the back of a $1m FAA contract to demonstrate an automated flight control system in Alaska. Which Merlin is doing with the help of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Everts Air Cargo. The Zealand Civil Aviation Authority (NZ CAA) has also successfully reviewed stage one involvement of Merlin’s certification plan creating a viable path to certify in the country. Plus, the firm has now an NZ established an operations centre.

Revolution.Aero spoke to Travis Mason, Merlin’s chief policy officer, who has been brought in to assist the company in certifying its Merlin Pilot product with the NZ CAA. Mason, formerly of Airbus and Alphabet’s Google and X, has over a decade of certification experience. He told us that a new aircraft system is the one of the most challenging technologies to certify. “On how to get there, the right to innovation is always TBD. In addition to the design certifications, you have to think about production and continued airworthiness questions. So this is a really robust challenge. At Merlin we are taking that challenge in a safe and stepwise way,” he said.

Founded in 2018, Merlin has raised $133.5m to date across four rounds, the last being a Series B raise of $105m in July last year, which included investment from Baillie Gifford and Google Ventures. The aim of Merlin’s retrofittable autonomy kits is to ease the ongoing pilot shortage while also making aviation safer and more efficient, says the company. Merlin plans to fully autonomise a variety of legacy fixed-wing aircraft types under FAA supplemental type certificates initially targeting the cargo sector.

“Certifying new types of aircraft for new types of operations is no easy task and at Merlin we decided to tackle that change initially through a Part 23 certification effort with the NZ CAA [FAA has a bilateral agreement with New Zealand] . As our business matures I think you will see us explore what’s possible, just like every other innovator in this space. We’ll continue asking: ‘What is it going to take for us to bring autonomy safely into the skies?’,” said Mason. “When you train a human pilot you impart the necessary skills for safe operation. That is the context within which we are building our pilot. How can we build operational maturity, platform maturity in our system.”

Figuring out the human-machine teaming is critical to Merlin’s progression through certification, according to Mason. “Even if we stop advancing automation in the flight deck today, work still remains on the pilot and machine relationship in the flight deck. If we don’t solve the challenge of making the human and the machine better collaborate today, we can’t even raise the question of whether to remove the pilot tomorrow.”

The Merlin team does not want to put dates on a certification timeline, however Mason said a target has been set with the NZ CAA. “We feel very confident about the timeline we have agreed with the regulator and for the rest of this year we will continue to work on both the hardware and software aspects of our certification application. In addition to the novel aspects such as takeoff and landing. So we have plenty of milestones to meet this year,” said Mason.

Merlin’s software is now undergoing further testing. Following a final, successful evaluation from the NZ CAA, the software will be considered DO-178C compliant. The DO-178C, or Software Considerations in Airborne Systems and Equipment Certification, is the primary document by which global certification authorities approve all commercial software-based aerospace systems.

Upon being hired, Mason was quoted as saying: “Certify the technology and scale, or fail to certify the technology and flounder – it’s that simple.” But is it only that simple if you have a modular technology able to scale and the right plan to do so? According to Mason, this is the “push-pull” that businesses in emerging technology face. “You have to weigh the regulatory aspects, the business aspects, the engineering aspects and the design aspects. All of these things mix and play together. Certification is a linchpin in that equation, but you have to balance the aspects correctly.”

Despite there being a case to argue for Merlin’s wizardry with aircraft automation, the company actually derives its name from Europe’s smallest bird of prey and the Rolls-Royce engine which powered WW2 aircraft such as the Spitfire and Mosquito. Merlin plans on being the third to leave an airborne legacy.

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