Merlin Labs, which develops autonomous systems that fly airplanes, has emerged from stealth with $25 million in funding from Google Ventures and others. The company says it wants to be the “the definitive autonomy platform for things that fly.” Merlin announced Wednesday it signed a deal to outfit 55 twin-turboprop King Air planes owned by Dynamic Aviation with AI flight systems. The startup also has a contract with the Air Force to develop autonomous transport planes. Boston-based Merlin Labs, which currently has roughly 50 employees (including full-time contractors), has a dedicated flight facility at the Mojave Air & Space Port where it’s been testing its AI platform. The system has already piloted hundreds of unmanned test flights from takeoff to touchdown, Merlin’s co-founder and CEO Matthew George tells me. [Photo: Merlin Labs] The first Dynamic Aviation King Air to be outfitted with a Merlin Labs AI system is now doing test flights in the Mojave. Eventually, the AI-enabled King Airs will do flights that are too “dull, dirty, or dangerous” for human pilots, George says. Currently, Dynamic Aviation uses humans for flying fire surveillance missions, transporting goods, and patrolling far out over the ocean, but it hopes Merlin’s AI will be able to ultimately take over the cockpit. Dynamic Aviation offers these flights as a service to customers that include federal defense and intelligence agencies, state and local governments, and private companies. Merlin’s AI will have to get clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before Dynamic’s King Airs can go pilotless. George says his company has been working closely with the regulator to get its AI flight system certified as safe. But the FAA currently does not have a certification for autonomous systems that fly fixed-wing aircraft (the only aviation regulator in the world that does is in New Zealand). The agency is working on the requirements of the certification now, George says.
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Google Ventures-backed Merlin Labs is building AI that can fly planes