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Merlin Completes Autonomous Cessna Caravan Flights

Merlin Lab’s Autonomous Cessna 208 Caravan. (Photo: Merlin Labs)

Merlin Labs announced on July 6 that it completed 25 autonomous test flights in Alaska. The Boston-based company conducted the tests under a $1 million contract with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to demonstrate a highly-automated flight control system with a safety pilot onboard. 

The company operated these test flights with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Everts Air Cargo. All routes originated from Fairbanks at FAA-designated Uncrewed Aircraft System Test Site and flew to Fort Yukon, Galena, Huslia, Tanana, and Prudhoe Bay. 

The company claimed, “Over sixty hours of systems-on, autonomous flight time were completed with the Merlin Pilot, allowing for extensive data collection in a real-world environment with complex terrain and inclement weather. Merlin Pilot is the first autonomous system integrated into the National Airspace System.”

New Frontier

Several other companies are also in advanced stages of commercializing autonomous flight systems. Ribbit and Reliable Robotics are other leaders in the field.

Ribbit

On the same day as Merlin’s announcement, Ribbit also revealed that it had signed a $1.3M contract with Transport Canada and Innovative Solutions Canada to begin testing self-flying aircraft in remote regions. The company has completed over 200 hours of hands-free flights on a two-seat airplane. 

Under this contract, the Toronto-based company will provide a single aircraft with remote crew and maintenance services to support autonomous cargo flights for one year. Transport Canada plans to use the data to inform future regulations, standards, and policies.

Reliable Robotics

Reliable Robotics’ Cessna 208 test aircraft. (Photo: Reliable Robotics)

Reliable Robotics is another U.S.-based company that works on advancing safer flying technologies for conventional aircraft. The Hollister, California-based company received its certification basis approval from the FAA in August 2022 and is working toward developing a certifiable remote-piloted flying system with a safety pilot onboard for the first development phase.

It also recently announced the completion of a series of test flights with NASA to demonstrate a high-precision, high-integrity navigation system that enables automatic landing and take-off in addition to auto taxiing. 

The company also appears to be leading in commercializing its technology. Reliable Robotics has signed a deal with Azul Airlines to study retrofitting its regional airline subsidiary’s Cessna 208 Caravan aircraft fleet in Brazil with flight automation systems. While FedEx has not made any orders with the company, it provided the aircraft and publicly acknowledged its involvement in the company’s technology development.

Conclusion

Existing aircraft can already complete entire flights with little to no human input under nominal conditions. Autonomous technologies will enhance flight safety, augment flight accessibility and potentially reduce emissions. While companies like Wisk Aero are inching toward creating novel autonomous flying machines, retrofitted conventional planes will likely commercialize sooner. 

However, that does not mean that self-flying machines will soon fill our sky. All these companies are currently conducting test flights in rural or remote areas, which will likely continue as they enter into services. In addition, all three focus on small cargo-carrying airplanes, which have significantly less impact should the system fail during flight. Although we are still far away from your day-to-day flights operating from gate to gate, these new technologies will undoubtedly start impacting people living in remote communities. 

Fangzhong Guo

Author

  • Fangzhong Guo

    Fangzhong grew up near an OEM airport in northeastern China, where he developed his enthusiasm for aviation. Taking upon his passion, he's now working as an aircraft interior design engineer. Besides working in the aerospace industry, Fangzhong enjoys trying out different types of airplanes and seeing how airplane interiors have evolved. So far, he's flown on over 80 types of aircraft. He also planespots in his spare time. His rarest catches included the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and AN-225.

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