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Human-centric AI news and analysis

This article was published on May 26, 2021

This AI startup is putting a fleet of airplanes in the sky without human pilots

"Fully-autonomous flight, take-off to touchdown"

This AI startup is putting a fleet of airplanes in the sky without human pilots
Tristan Greene
Story by

Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan covers human-centric artificial intelligence advances, politics, queer stuff, cannabis, and gaming. Pronouns: He/him Tristan covers human-centric artificial intelligence advances, politics, queer stuff, cannabis, and gaming. Pronouns: He/him

Meet the pilot of tomorrow, today:

The cockpit of a King Air aircraft in flight with an empty pilot's seat
Credit: Merlin Labs
Look ma, no pilot

AI startup Merlin Labs today deactivated stealth mode to announce a $25 million funding round and a partnership with Dynamic Aviation to put a fleet of 55 King Air planes in the sky without humans aboard.

Merlin Labs CEO and founder Matthew George told Neural:

What we’re building is software that creates a think-for-itself-pilot … fully-autonomous flight take-off to touchdown.

The big idea: See a need, fill a need. Merlin Labs is taking autonomous software technology and building an artificially intelligent pilot. Autonomous fixed-wing flight might sound familiar, but there’s a huge difference between designing a remote or hybrid-controlled drone from the ground up and building a system that can fly nearly any fixed wing aircraft.

How it works: Merlin Labs has offices in Boston, Los Angeles, Denver, and New Zealand. But the belle of the ball is its testing facility in the Mojave desert.

A King Air aircraft banks over the Mojave desert.
Credit: Merlin Labs
Merlin Labs tests its aircraft at the Mojave Air and Space port.

There, the company’s researchers use data generated from human pilots to build flight simulations to test their AI systems on.

From there, the team outfitted various aircraft, ranging from smaller craft all the way up to the big King Air planes pictured in the above images, with the necessary hardware to run its autonomous pilot system.

What’s next: George told Neural the company was working with government and civilian partners to develop and implement the technology: “We believe this starts with cargo.”

He also said this technology could have applications in numerous other fields including military transport, agriculture, and firefighting.

Quick take: We don’t usually cover funding, but this is definitely newsworthy. Merlin Labs is announcing a lot more than financing.

From what we understand, the company plans to become the first fully-certified – as in, certified by the necessary government entities as being in complete adherence with aviation regulations – autonomous flight system for large fixed-wing aircraft.

And its starting in partnership with Dynamic Aviation, the owner of the world’s largest King Air fleet.

If Merlin Labs can eventually roll out an artificially intelligent pilot that companies such as Amazon and UPS or agencies such as the US Air Force and the California department of forestry and firefighting can implement to their existing fleets, this could be an absolute game-changer.

In the meantime, Merlin Labs is already operating its first King Air autonomously and has 55 more on the way for what will become the world’s first fleet of fully-autonomous fixed-wing aircraft.

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