Google’s Startup ‘Merlin Labs’ Preparing 55 Autonomous Planes for Real Service

Image by Annabel_P from Pixabay

‘Merlin Labs’, a developer of autonomous flight technology who has just received a venture capital investment of $25 million by Google Ventures, is preparing a fleet of 55 aircraft to be able to fly all by themselves. The fifty-five autonomous planes will be the venerable ‘King Air 360’ made by Beechcraft, so the tech company is going to install its flying system on existing aircraft, not build something from scratch.

Merlin Labs has been silently developing this system for 2.5 years now, and performed several hundred autonomous flying tests across three major generations of its experimental system. The last version is mature enough to be ready for the prime time, as it can be adapted to different models, it can assume control in cases of emergency, or simply run in the background and absolve human pilots from traffic controller communication duties.

The company believes that the best area to start from would be logistics giants such as UPS and FedEx, where human lives aren’t at stake, and reducing operational costs while increasing safety remain key considerations. Even without a pilot aboard, the ‘King Air’ planes will still be overseen by someone on the ground who could potentially take over if things go wrong.

The reason why we’re already discussing autonomous flying even though autonomous driving is yet to come is that up in the air, there just ain’t that many complexities and unforeseen surprises that could confuse the system. Flying is a lot easier than driving because it happens in a simpler environment.

So, does this mean that ‘Merlin Labs’ is about to revolutionize the field? Not quite. The U.S. FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) will still have to be convinced to approve the required certifications for the fleet, and this may take a long time before it happens considering how tightly regulated this field is.

Bianca Van der Watt

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