Wednesday, May 22, 2024
Bringing autonomous flights to airfreight

Bringing autonomous flights to airfreight

Merlin, the developer of safe, autonomous flight technology for fixed-wing aircraft, recently secured a Part 135 Air Operators Certificate to support future operational freight routes in New Zealand. 

The certification comes as Merlin takes a phased approach that pairs the advanced automation capabilities with a human pilot. “This is a crawl, walk, fly approach,” Matt George, Merlin’s CEO and Founder, said.

Crawl: Rigorous testing and certification with industry regulators, including the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority.

Walk: Reduced crews on small aircraft, using a teaming approach whereby the Merlin Pilot and the human safety pilot aboard validate the Merlin Pilot’s data-driven decisions and ensure safety.

Fly: Large aircraft fly with the Merlin Pilot, and a reduced crew, and small aircraft fly without a crew.

“Last year, our first test aircraft was deployed to assist in the regional flood relief efforts, which showcased our commitment to supporting the community while simultaneously advancing our technical capabilities,” George highlighted. 

READ: Merlin awarded Part 135 organisational certification for airfreight operations in New Zealand

Potential partners

Upon the Merlin Pilot’s completed product certification by the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand (CAA), Merlin will be able to conduct critical data collection flights on selected regional freight routes, as well as leverage its dedicated test facility in Kerikeri for current and future certified products. 

Merlin opened this Kerikeri centre for operations in May 2023 and has been progressing both organisational and product certification since its Project Specific Certification Plan (PSCP) was first approved in August 2021 by the CAA.  

The data collected during these freight routes is critical for future development decisions that will be implemented globally, as well as ensuring in-air operability and certification of the Merlin Pilot with both the CAA and the Federal Aviation Association (FAA).

“We are currently in discussions with a number of potential partners across New Zealand. With Merlin’s base is located in Keri Keri, Northland, the company sees potential to operate freight services supporting all of regional New Zealand where the current transport infrastructure is limiting the business development opportunities for local entrepreneurs,” George outlined.

READ: Merlin successfully completes trials for nation’s first non-human pilot air cargo network

Pathway to progress

In May 2023, Merlin also achieved its state of involvement (SOI) 1 milestone with the CAA, putting the Merlin Pilot on a viable path to certification and commercial operation.    

The Merlin Pilot’s CAA Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) is on a concurrent validation pathway with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under the Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement.

This agreement provides an efficient path for certification across both authorities, allowing for approval by one authority to quickly move through approval by the other authority. Once the Merlin Pilot is certified in New Zealand it is expected to quickly move through to be certified by the FAA.

“We believe the human side of integrating autonomous technology is an important area of focus. At Merlin, we’re researching how autonomy impacts pilot workload and trust to build confidence in our system. Trust is a design element of the Merlin Pilot and a key driver for the adoption of autonomous technology in the industry,” George stated.

“With New Zealand being a birthplace of aviation innovation and having the capability and capacity in a strong regulatory environment, it makes sense to work with the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority to deploy and test our capabilities in this region.

“We have been progressing in both organisational and product certification since our Project Specific Certification Plan (PSCP) was first approved in August 2021 by the CAA. Since then, we’ve opened a Kerikeri centre for operations and achieved our SOI 1 milestone, which greenlit the development of our flight control software.

“Our near-term focus is working with regulators to certify our base technology for commercial and military partners.”

Picture of James Graham

James Graham

James Graham is an award-winning transport media journalist with a long background in the commercial freight sector, including commercial aviation and the aviation supply chain. He was the initial Air Cargo Week journalist and retuned later for a stint as editor. He continues his association as editor of the monthly supplements. He has reported for the newspaper from global locations as well as the UK.


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