Merlin on cusp of flight test campaign


Merlin’s test aircraft Big Red is undergoing integration with the startup’s autopilot system ahead of beginning a flight test campaign.

The firm has taken a crawl, walk and fly approach to certifying its first version of Merlin Pilot, according to chief technology officer Alex Naiman. To date Merlin has made “significant progress” in the crawl stage and will complete this current phase by demonstrating its ability to meet certification standards to the FAA and the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand (CAA).

The baseline version of Merlin Pilot currently under development will allow cargo aircraft to fly automatically, from takeoff to landing, with an onboard human pilot in command. Merlin then plans to adapt the system to other aircraft types and expand to automate additional functions of flight.

“We are currently equipping Merlin’s Cessna Grand Caravan 208B, nicknamed ‘Big Red,’ with the Merlin Pilot that we will certify via a supplemental type certificate,” said Naiman in a blog post. “Big Red will serve as our flight test platform for the final development and verification of the certified system for the regulatory authority.”


The integration includes three hardware installation areas that will enable the Merlin Pilot software to control the flight:

Replace analog flight instruments with modern digital glass display instruments
These updated instruments and displays allow the Merlin Pilot to keep the human pilot fully aware of its status and intended flight path. They also provide a user-friendly interface that allows the human pilot to control the Merlin Pilot to make adjustments such as altering the flight plan.

Install additional new avionics
This installation includes navigation and guidance sensors, computers, and other components that comprise the core of the Merlin Pilot. These avionics perform the perception and comprehension functions that are fundamental to any automated system.

Install digital servo motors and mechanical linkages
The firm is installing digital servo motors and mechanical linkages that will allow the Merlin Pilot to control Big Red’s primary and secondary flight controls. These servos translate commands from the computational core of the system to actions that the aircraft takes in flight.

With the Merlin Pilot fully installed on Big Red, the startup can begin its flight test campaign to prove out the system. “We are prepared to move quickly through this campaign given our extensive experience flight testing the experimental versions of the Merlin Pilot on the Caravan, King Air, and Twin Otter,” added Naiman.

Merlin’s latest progress comes on the back of a summer of test flying as part of a $1m FAA contract. The agency asked Merlin to demonstrate a highly-automated flight control system in conjunction with a safety pilot. 

Conducted in partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks UAS Test Site and Everts Air Cargo, the 25 test flights reached rural areas using crewed aircraft controlled by its integrated hardware and software solution, the Merlin Pilot.

Speaking at the time Matthew George, co-founder and CEO of Merlin, said: “The data we’ve been able to gather from these flight trials is critical to the maturation of our in-flight technology, but also to our continued progression in certifying the Merlin Pilot. It’s exciting to know our technology can successfully reach remote locations in Alaska, proving an important application for autonomy; its ability to assist in dangerous missions.”