2.  | 
  3. News
  4.  | Autonomous Cargo Flights Complete Test Series

Autonomous Cargo Flights Complete Test Series

Jul 12, 2023 | News, Transportation

Merlin integrated its flight control software and hardware into a Cessna Caravan for testing in Alaska.


A company developing software for autonomous cargo aircraft completed a series of test flights out of Fairbanks. Everts Air Cargo and the UAF Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) assisted Boston-based Merlin in putting its “non-human pilot” through real-world operational challenges.

Follow the Gleam

Merlin has a $1 million contract with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to demonstrate a highly automated flight control system. The demonstration involved twenty-five flights from Fairbanks to Fort Yukon, Galena, Huslia, Tanana, and Prudhoe Bay. More than sixty hours of systems-on, autonomous flight time were successfully completed; a safety pilot was aboard to assist the software, called Merlin Pilot.

“As we’ve learned in collaboration with Merlin’s team, it’s very apparent that they are doing this right,” says ACUASI director Cathy Cahill. “Their integrated approach to our unique ecosystem is one of the main reasons they were the first company with which we approached the FAA. They use real data to train the onboard automation system to ensure safety.”

By flying a crewed aircraft augmented with its integrated hardware and software solution, Merlin collected extensive data for handling complex terrain and inclement weather. These test flights are also the first to integrate an autonomous pilot into a natural airspace system.

“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,” says Matthew George, co-founder and CEO of Merlin. “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. We’re incredibly thankful for the support and partnership of the FAA, Everts Air Cargo, and ACUASI. Our partners have been critical in our ability to progress the Merlin Pilot.”

Current Issue

Alaska Business May 2024 Cover

May 2024

George co-founded Merlin in 2018. The company also has offices in Denver and test facilities in California and New Zealand. The entire testing phase has racked up more than 800 flying hours with more than 400 autonomous missions using five different models of aircraft. The testing in Alaska used a modified Cessna Caravan.

“Operating in Alaska is a real challenge,” says Cahill. “I like to say we’re the final exam. If you can fly here, you can fly anywhere, as we deal with long distances, extreme climate variations, and limited communications coverage.”

Once Merlin’s system is certified to integrate with air traffic in the United States and New Zealand, the next phase is to fly larger cargo planes with reduced crews. The ultimate goal is to operate large aircraft with minimal crew and small aircraft with no humans at the controls.

The company just announced that it raised $105 million in Series B funding from Snowpoint and Baille Gifford, with major participation by Google Ventures and JS Capital. Merlin also secured a partnership with the US Air Force to bring autonomy to the C-130J Super Hercules, the most-used cargo platform in the fleet. 

Alaska Business May 2024 cover
In This Issue

Making History

May 2024

The track of oil and gas development in Alaska shows the footprints of bold companies and hard-working individuals who shaped the industry in the past and continue to innovate today. The May 2024 issue of Alaska Business explores that history while looking forward to new product development, the energy transition for the fishing fleet, and the ethics of AI tools in business.

Share This