Autonomous flight startup Merlin Labs receives $105M and Air Force partnership

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Autonomous flight is a daunting task in aviation and a goldmine. The first company to achieve great success will make a solid profit only from transport and logistics. In 2020, the global air cargo industry was worth US$110.8 billion. according to statisticsand, according to one source, it is generate hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue by 2027.

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xwing – one of the startups chasing flying planes, like Reliable Robotics, Pika and unicorn Volokopter. They are not the only ones. About a year ago Boston Merlin Labs emerged from stealth with an autonomous flight system designed to be installed on existing aircraft. While Merlin told TechCrunch at the time that he had “hundreds” of test flights under his belt, the company’s system is not licensed by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to provide commercial services.

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This has changed recently. In September, the Merlin received approval from the FAA and the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for a “certification basis” for an autonomy system in a joint project between the FAA and the CAA. Following certification, Merlin partnered with fleet operators Dynamic Aviation and Ameriflight to move into defense, saying it would supply its system to the US Air Force to upgrade C-130J Super Hercules cargo planes.

Merlin Labs

Image credits: Merlin Labs

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Apparently pleased with the progress, investors poured heavily into Merlin, bringing the Series B round to $105 million. The round, which was announced today, was led by Snowpoint and Bailey Gifford, with GV (formerly Google Ventures), bringing Merlin’s total fundraising to $130 million.

“Merlin was founded to define what’s possible in aviation in the next 100 years,” CEO Matt George told TechCrunch in an email interview. “A major part of my interest in building the Merlin is to improve pilot safety and operational flexibility by adding autonomous systems to existing aircraft.”

George is a two-time founder, having previously launched Bridj, a platform that supports on-demand public transport providers. Bridj gained modest popularity in Boston, Washington D.C. and Austin before running out of runway by selling its assets, including the brand, to Australian company Transit Systems. With Merlin, George, drawing on his experience as a pilot, hopes to make a smoother landing.

“We are going to continue to achieve our certification goals… [W]We want to strengthen this record of trust and security with new funding,” said George. “The business case is relatively simple: in a world with rising transportation costs and a global shortage of pilots, autonomy can help reduce the cost burden on companies and at the same time increase the safety of the pilots themselves, who now have an always-on, alert and intelligent co-pilot robot inside the airframe. with which they are already familiar.

The Merlin avionics system uses GPS, inertial navigation systems, airborne data, and altitude and heading reference systems to determine the aircraft’s current position and altitude. The system performs actions using actuators connected to the aircraft, which are controlled by the on-board computer.

The flight is difficult; Fatal crashes such as Lion Air Flight 610 in 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in 2019 serve as sobering reminders of this. But George argues that autonomy in the air is easier than, say, on the road, because ground-based radar provides “full vision” of almost everything in the sky – at least in the US. He believes Merlin’s technology simply builds on the autopilot systems that are common today in large commercial aircraft, which often perform procedures in flight as well as landing.

As a fallback, pilots fly the Merlin system in equipped aircraft, George said, and their data is used to improve the system’s efficiency and safety.

Merlin Labs

Image credits: Merlin Labs

One of the unique aspects of the Merlin product is the use of speech recognition to interact with air traffic controllers. As George explains, Merlin’s system is designed to receive verbal instructions from control towers, recognize and interpret instructions, and adjust flight instructions accordingly. George says the system had to be trained on various accents and voice types to be “really reliable and useful”.

Because speech recognition is error-prone, the human pilot takes control when it fails.

Even with over $100 million in funding, Merlin is not as well funded as some of its competitors. But George claims the startup is already generating “8+ figures of revenue,” which he sees as a milestone in an emerging market.

Defense is likely to be a lucrative new line of business for Merlin in light of recent geopolitical events. One rival Shield AIrecently raised $165 million at a $2.3 billion valuation to support the development of its military autonomous flying systems.

Fast Company previously reported that Merlin was working with the Air Force under “Other Transaction Authorities” (OTA), an acquisition contract in which the government funds development of the technology until it is mature enough to meet the terms of the defense contract. Merlin described the amount as “much more” than the traditional $1 million or so that OTAs typically go for.

“The autonomous flight industry, in addition to the technical challenges of getting aircraft to fly on its own, faces challenges from regulators and public opinion… We face these challenges by working together with key stakeholders to ensure a safe and balanced approach to autonomous flight. flight,” said George. “The challenge the pandemic presents also demonstrates the value of what we deliver in aviation: the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way people shop, which in turn has put enormous pressure on retailers, carriers and logistics companies to transport and deliver. goods. in a timely manner and loaded the aviation system as a whole.

George says Merlin will use the money from the latest funding to expand testing, build Part 135 cargo capacity in New Zealand, and increase headcount to 70 in the US and New Zealand. (Merlin Labs has offices in Los Angeles, Denver, and New Zealand, and a dedicated flight facility in the Mojave Desert.) In New Zealand, Part 135 rules prescribe operational requirements for aircraft with fewer than nine seats and helicopters.

Merlin has previously said it expects to see autonomous flights that can take off, navigate, land and communicate with air traffic control as early as 2023.


Credit: techcrunch.com /

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