Transforming Freighter Fleets Into Autonomous Flights Is Ameriflight's Goal

Transforming Freighter Fleets Into Autonomous Flights Is Ameriflight's Goal
Courtesy by Merlin Labs

Ameriflight, one of the world's leading cargo carriers, has agreed to convert its freight fleet to use Merlin Labs' new autonomous flight system in order to address what it believes is a worsening shortage of qualified commercial pilots in the industrymous capability, in anticipation of progressing to fully autonomous flights when these are approved by the FAA.

The U.S. airline is currently in the process of converting the Cessna 208B Caravan aircraft in its fleet as part of a program that will provide regional freight services for express delivery groups like FedEx, UPS, and DHL. In addition, Merlin operates Beechcraft 99 and 1900 aircraft, as well as Embraer EMB-120 Brasilias and Fairchild SA-227 Metroliners, but it has not yet confirmed whether it intends to install what Merlin calls its "drop-in autonomy" technology in these types of aircraft at a future date. There are also two other DHC-6 Twin Otters and a Rutan Long EZ aircraft equipped with Merlin's autonomous flight system.

Ameriflight Caravans will be equipped with Merlin's systems by the end of 2023, according to the Boston-based company. In 2023, the operator hopes to earn the required supplemental type certificate and begin flying the technology, instead of doing so on an experimental basis.

A similar partnership was announced by Dynamic Aviation earlier this year, which has already fitted out one of its Textron King Air twin turboprops for test flights at the Mojave Air & Space Port in California. During the same period, Merlin announced that it raised $25 million to support the development of the technology.

It has been approved by the FAA for Merlin to conduct optionally piloted tests, allowing it to control some flights from the ground. In accordance with the company's CEO Matthew George, all flight testing conducted by the company takes place with a monitoring pilot on board, but the system is fully in charge - from takeoff to landing - and also handles communication with air traffic controllers during the flightthat 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.

Thousands of simulated hours have been flown by the company in hundreds of complete missions. New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority issued the first certification basis for autonomous flight systems in September as part of a joint project with the FAA.

A Merlin flight control system is composed of software, computers, servos, actuators, and sensors that, according to the company, function like a human pilot. A test pilot conducts maneuvers on a series of survey flights in order to collect data for Merlin's engineering team during the conversion process.

By using hardware-in-the-loop, software-in-the-loop, and aircraft-in-the-loop simulators, Merlin builds an autonomous flight control model specific to each aircraft type. When the model has been proven to work in simulators, the company installs them in real aircraft and gradually expands the envelope for autonomous flight, culminating in full autonomy from takeoff to landing.

Ameriflight's move toward autonomous operations is motivated by the shortage of suitably qualified pilots. According to the airline's president and CEO, Paul Chase, a pilot today might have a thousand flight hours under his belt. As a result of Merlin's process for certifying its technology, we're putting the equivalent of much more experience in the cockpit on our first day. A pilot doesn't have to go through the same learning curve as an airline pilot, which reduces the overall risk profile for the company. I think that's a win for the company, our pilots, and our customers."

According to Ameriflight, it plans to operate both autonomous and piloted aircraft, and will not replace its flight crew. In the unspecified investment in Merlin's technology, it expects to save significant amounts of money.

"Merlin is working on a solution to allow our existing fleet to become autonomous in the near future, rather than requiring us to upgrade the fleet, which would be an extremely expensive endeavor." Chase added. It is now possible to extend the life of the fleet at a relatively affordable cost as we are able to take advantage of the existing functionality of the aircraft and to update both the cockpit and avionics equipment on the aircraft."

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