Autonomous planes take off amid labor shortages

merlin labs

Merlin Labs

A Boston-based company bringing autonomy to existing fixed-wing aircraft announces a major round of funding, including: urgent nationwide pilot shortages arouse renewed interest in autonomous flying. Merlin Labsthat we tracked for their move to pragmatic autonomous air travel is funding a $120 million Series B round from Snowpoint and Baille Gifford, with major participation from existing investor GV.

Last year Merlin teamed up with Dynamic Aviation, the owner of the world’s largest privately owned King Air fleet, to give 55 aircraft autonomy. The company is part of a small but active group of companies working to bring autonomy to aviation.

The company’s autonomy platform is aircraft independent, focuses on on-board autonomy rather than remote control, and is integrated into a wide range of aircraft in the public and private sectors. Applying autonomy to existing aircraft significantly shortens time-to-market compared to developing an airframe.

another company, Xwing, uses a similar strategy to introduce autonomous technology to regional air freight, an overlooked space in the global race for autonomy, but with its predictable routes of less than 500 miles and significant commercial importance, an intriguing starting 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 unmanned flights.

Both Merlin and Xwing are entering the market at a time when ambitious new airframe designs, including vertical take-off and landing aircraft, are entering advanced testing. Companies competing in this space, often referred to as “urban air mobility,” include: Overair and Archeramong other things.

Late last year, Merlin announced that it had received approval from its certification base for its own take-off-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 Ameriflightthe largest Part 135 cargo airline in the United States.

Interestingly, the United States Air Force has shown strong interest in Merlin’s autonomous technology. The company is working with the USAF to bring autonomy to the service’s C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, the most widely used cargo platform in the fleet. Following on from its civilian applications, Merlin will help the Air Force improve safety and operational flexibility, while boasting increased security and the possibility of crew reductions in the face of a global pilot shortage.

Air travel is often an overlooked space in the race for autonomous mobility, but labor dynamics and rising costs have put an emphasis on airspace autonomy.

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