Remote piloting and automated assistance software is slowly creeping into non-commercial aircraft. Compared to self-driving tech, these systems have had an easier ride with air safety regulators due to their co-existence with human operators. But, a handful of fledgling autonomous flight companies are striving to change that. Today, one of those startups, Boston-based Merlin Labs, is announcing a partnership that will bring its on-board automation software to a fleet of 55 King Air utility aircraft.
The pact with aerospace company Dynamic Aviation coincides with Merlin's emergence from stealth mode, marking the first time its tech for fixed-wing aircraft will be used publicly. Over the past several months, the startup has been quietly testing its proprietary software on a range of planes, including twin turboprop aircraft, at its dedicated flight facility at the Mojave Air & Space Port. The trials include the first aircraft from its Dynamic Aviation partnership.
Merlin says it has raised $25 million in funding from backers including Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Alphabet. We already know that Google co-founder Larry Page has previously bankrolled flying car startups Aero and Kitty Hawk, so the company's involvement here is hardly surprising. The search giant's parent also operates a self-driving car division in Waymo.
Like its chief rival Reliable Robotics, Merlin's ultimate goal is to populate the heavens with a whole host of pilotless planes shuttling passengers and cargo. The company says its autonomy platform is "aircraft agnostic" allowing it to be retrofitted to existing and new models. “This deal represents a major commercial milestone as well as Merlin’s commitment to support larger and more complex aircraft,” said Matthew George, Merlin co-founder and CEO.