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Planes without a pilot?: new tech redefines the future of flying



autonomous flight technology with Merlin labs

New autonomous flight startup says the sky will soon be filled with pilotless planes

Merlin Labs, the Tesla of planes

Aviation technology startup Merlin labs recently announced they’ve secured $25 million in funding for the development of their pilotless planes.

The company recently struck a deal with aviation services contractor Dynamic Aviation, with potential to expand their tech to commercial flights.

“What we’re working on is creating a truly autonomous digital pilot”

Merlin Labs CEO Matt George

As part of this deal, Merlin Labs will supply its autonomous flight technology to 55 of the contractor’s King Air aircraft. The company says it’s already conducting test flights with the first King Air plane.

Merlin Labs CEO Matt George said the company’s goal is to be able to fly planes totally unmanned. The new technology will use enable existing aircraft to “fly autonomously,” he said.

How does the technology work?

The autonomous flight technology that allows Merlin’s aircraft to fly without a pilot is pretty simple, George says.

“The reason that that autonomy up in the air is so much easier is that you have complete vision, at least in the United States, of everything that’s up in the sky, with ground based radar,” he said.

Merlin says it envisions the role of remote pilots as supervisory, monitoring dozens of aircraft in the sky at once. George says the “vast majority of tasks” will be left to autonomous software, including communication with air traffic control and navigation.

Safety of autonomous flying

Merlin Labs “doesn’t believe in remote piloting”. If the aircraft loses signal with the remote operator, then you would have “a huge chunk of metal hurtling through the sky,” he told The Verge.

It may come as a surprise that this autonomous flight technology is not quite as new as it seems. It’s actually quite common for planes to have some level of autopilot capability.

In 2016, the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General released a damning report. It called out the FAA for failing to ensure pilots receive enough training in manual flying.

George believes that pilotless planes will increase the overall safety of flying. This comes amid ongoing safety investigations into Tesla’s autopilot feature.

Natasha is an Associate Producer at ticker NEWS with a Bachelor of arts from Monash University. She has previously worked at Sky News Australia and Monash University as an Online Content Producer.

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