The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Ameriflight Will Convert Freighter Fleet for Autonomous Flight

Cargo carrier Ameriflight has agreed to convert its fleet to use Merlin Labs' new autonomous flight system in a bid to address what it views as a worsening shortage of suitably qualified commercial pilots. Initially, the operator intends to fly with semi-autonomous capability, in anticipation of progressing to fully autonomous flights when these are approved by the FAA.

The U.S. airline, which provides regional freight services for express delivery groups including FedEx, UPS, and DHL, will begin the conversion program with the Cessna 208B Caravan aircraft in its fleet. It also operates Beechcraft 99 and 1900 aircraft, as well as Embraer EMB-120 Brasilias and Fairchild SA-227 Metroliners, but has not yet confirmed whether it intends to install what Merlin calls its “drop-in autonomy” technology in these types at a later date. Merlin has also integrated the autonomous flight system on a DHC-6 Twin Otter and a Rutan Long EZ.

Boston-based Merlin aims to complete the integration of its systems on the Ameriflight Caravans in the fourth quarter of 2023. It says the operator will fly the technology once it is fully certified, rather than on an experimental basis, and hopes to earn the required supplemental type certificate in 2023.

Earlier this year, special missions operator Dynamic Aviation announced a similar partnership to convert up to 55 of its Textron King Air twin turboprops, with one of these already fitted out for test flights at the Mojave Air & Space Port in California. Around the same time, Merlin reported it had raised $25 million to support the development of the technology.

The FAA has given Merlin its approval to conduct optionally piloted tests that allow the company to control flights from the ground for some operations. According to company CEO Matthew George, all flight testing is conducted with a monitoring pilot on board, but with the system fully in charge from takeoff to landing, and also handling communications with air traffic controllers. He told FutureFlight that the Merlin team is working on the "teaming and development" phase of the project, with data collection and route integration trials set to start in early 2022.

The company says it has already flown hundreds of complete missions, performing thousands of simulated hours. In September, the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand, as part of a joint project with the FAA, issued the first certification basis for the autonomous flight system.

The Merlin flight control system consists of a combination of software, computers, servos, actuators, and sensors that the company claims collectively fulfill the functions of a human pilot. The conversion process begins with the company performing a series of survey flights in which a test pilot conducts maneuvers from which Merlin’s engineering team receives data.

Using this data, Merlin builds an autonomous flight control model that is specific to each aircraft type, using hardware-in-the-loop, software-in-the-loop, and aircraft-in-the-loop simulators. Once it has established that the model works in the simulators, the company installs them in a real aircraft and then gradually expands the envelope for autonomous flight, culminating in full takeoff-to-touchdown autonomy.

The shortage of suitably qualified pilots is a major driver for Ameriflight to make the move toward autonomous operations. “Today, a pilot might come to us with a thousand hours of flight experience,” explained the airline’s president and CEO, Paul Chase. “With the processes that Merlin uses to certify its technology, we’re putting the equivalent of much more experience into the cockpit on day one. You don’t have this learning curve that pilots need to go through, and that lowers the overall risk profile to the airline. That’s a win for our pilots, our customers, and our company.”

Ameriflight says that it intends to operate a mix of autonomous and piloted aircraft, and will not be replacing its flight crew. It expects to achieve significant cost savings from the unspecified investment in Merlin’s technology.

“Merlin is designing a solution to allow our existing fleet to become autonomous rather than requiring us to upgrade our fleet, which would come at a very high capital cost,” Chase added. “By using the aircraft’s existing functionality and enabling us to update the cockpit and avionics equipment, Merlin is making it possible to extend fleet life at a relatively affordable cost.”