Merlin Labs wants to fill the sky with pilotless planes carrying cargo and passengers

Autonomous flight startup Merlin Labs is coming out of stealth mode to announce that it’s raised $25 million in funding from Google Ventures and First Round Capital. The company has also struck a deal with aviation services contractor Dynamic Aviation to begin putting its pilotless plane technology into commercial operation.

The two announcements are the first steps toward Merlin Labs’ larger goal of filling the sky with pilotless planes carrying cargo and passengers. As part of its deal with Dynamic, the startup will supply its autonomous flight technology to 55 of the contractor’s King Air aircraft. Merlin is already conducting test flights with the first King Air plane outside its dedicated flight facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Merlin Labs is co-located in Boston; Los Angeles; Denver; and Auckland, New Zealand.

“What we’re working on is creating a truly autonomous digital pilot,” Merlin Labs CEO Matt George told The Verge, “either to be able to go and take that airplane and fly it totally unmanned, but then also on larger aircraft to be able to reduce crew. So taking existing aircraft that are already out there, and enabling those aircraft to be able to go fly autonomously.”

These are not aircraft that are being joy-sticked by a remote operator in some terrestrial office park somewhere, like a Predator drone, George said. Merlin Labs “doesn’t believe in remote piloting… we fundamentally believe that the vast majority of the autonomy needs to be on the aircraft.” If the aircraft loses signal with the remote operator, then you would have “a huge chunk of metal hurtling through the sky,” he added.

Merlin envisions the role of its remote pilots as supervisory, monitoring dozens of aircraft in the sky at once, but leaving the vast majority of the tasks, from communication with air traffic control to navigation, to the autonomous software.

The technology that allows Merlin’s aircraft to fly without a pilot is pretty simple, George says. “The reason that that autonomy up in the air is so much easier is that you have complete vision, at least in the United States, of everything that’s up in the sky, with ground based radar,” he said. Its aircraft use the air traffic control network’s radar system to plot a safe course. And the digital transponders that are required as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen system help the planes understand where there are other aircraft in the sky.

Autonomous flight isn’t as outlandish as it may sound. It’s commonplace for planes to come equipped with autopilot technology. Pilots of large commercial aircraft, for example, will typically handle the take-off and then let the software handle the flying and landing.

But automation is also becoming increasingly problematic in the world of aviation. In 2016, the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General released a damning report calling out the FAA for failing to ensure pilots receive enough training in manual flying. In fact, commercial pilots may be relying so much on automation that they lack the skills to take over when the system fails, the IG concluded.

This came up again with the fatal crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets in 2018 and 2019. US pilots complained that they weren’t being properly trained to handle all of the Max aircraft’s many automated features.

This is where you run into problems, George said. “When you have a human sort of in control and the machine sort of in control is where you get really bad stuff,” he said. Echoing his counterparts in the world of autonomous vehicles, George said he believes that full autonomy is the only way to ensure these systems are as safe as possible.

Unlike other companies in the autonomous flight space, like Xwing or Reliable Robotics, Merlin isn’t seeking to become its own cargo carrier, which would require obtaining a Part 135 air carrier certificate from the FAA. Merlin is working to certify its technology with the agency, but it would rather license its technology to preexisting cargo carriers than seek to supplant them.

“We’re partnering with a bunch of Part 135 operators around the country,” George said. “But we’re gonna focus on what we do well, which is not figuring out how to run an airline, you know, which is pretty difficult.”

George has experience in the transportation startup world, having run the on-demand bus service Bridj for several years. The company shut down in 2017 after having failed to land a major deal with an unnamed car company. Working with automakers like Ford provided him with a close look at the race to deploy autonomous vehicles. And that got him thinking about where autonomy would work best.

“Where is autonomy going to take effect first?” he asked. “Is he going to be on the ground? Or is autonomy actually much easier in the air, where we know where everything is?”