Self-flying planes could transport passengers one day—but first, packages

Tech 24-7-2021 Mashable 44
Self-flying planes will first start with packages before people.

If you're ever in California's Mojave desert, look up. The planes overhead could be flying themselves.

Autonomous flight startup Merlin Labs announced earlier this year that it was partnering with aircraft provider Dynamic Aviation to fly 46 King Air twin-turbo prop planes, which are often used to transport cargo and passengers.

Merlin has been operating in "stealth mode" since 2018, but after a $25 million funding round from firms including Google Ventures, the Boston-based company is now revealing its autonomous tech.

The company says its software and hardware is meant to work in any plane. So far, it says it has conducted test flights ranging from 10 minutes to several hours with three types of aircraft.

For now, the company is only doing test flights in the California desert. Those flights still have a safety pilot onboard.

CEO Matthew George said in a recent phone call that he got into the industry to "make air space safer and more efficient."

Eventually Merlin wants to start loading packages onto the autonomous planes. The plan is help businesses keep up with online purchases that ramped up during COVID-19.

George projects he could save shipping companies money by making deliveries that normally take multiple days in under a day.

Without an air crew, costs for training, employing, and lodging workers would go down. Merlin estimates crew costs can add up to $180,000 to $6 million over the life of a plane, depending on the size and type of craft.

With autonomous planes, companies wouldn't need to worry about pilots and crew getting stuck in other cities. And they could schedule as many flights as they wanted at odd hours — without restrictions based on worker hours or coordinated schedules. Flight crews would work on the ground, and focus mainly on monitoring self-piloted flights.

No hands, no pilot.
No hands, no pilot. Credit: merlin Labs

At first, the Federal Aviation Administration will let companies transport cargo, with a plan to eventually allow them to carry passengers, in what it calls a "crawl-walk-run approach."

That's pretty much George's plan, too.

"Moving passengers is probably step 50, and we’re on step three," he said.

Xwing, an autonomous flight company for regional air cargo, has fully leaned into delivery even if passenger flight is the ultimate goal. It completed its first autonomous cargo flight from gate to gate in a Cessna Grand Caravan 208B back in February. The flight was remotely monitored from a mission control center in Concord, California.

For now, everyone in the industry, including Merlin, is testing planes with pilots at the helm. The next step is for the FAA to allow planes to fly without pilots over unpopulated areas.

Marc Piette, founder and CEO of Xwing, said in a call that focusing on the cargo market helps improve autonomous flight technology.

It also prepares regulators for a potential passenger market.

"We’re at the tip of the spear here," Piette said.


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