Can a C-130J Super Hercules be flown autonomously? Merlin Labs might have the answer

As pilot shortages continue and automation seems inevitable, the U.S. Air Force is partnering with a Boston-based technology company, Merlin Labs, to test using an autonomous co-pilot on its C-130J Super Hercules cargo transport plane.

The Economic Times

The technology is touted to be advanced auto-copilot, designed to take over the responsibilities of one crew member in flight while being supervised by a human pilot. Reportedly, the software can also steer and maintain an aircraft’s course in flight, even in turbulence and harsh weather.

Merlin’s avionics system uses GPS, inertial navigation systems, air data, and altitude and heading reference systems to establish an aircraft’s current position and altitude. The system performs actions using actuators connected to the plane, which are directed by the onboard flight computer.

The business case is relatively simple: in a world of increasing transportation costs and a global shortage of pilots, autonomy can help to ease the burden of cost on companies, and at the same time can increase safety for pilots themselves, who now have an always-on, alert, and intelligent robotic co-pilot within the airframe they’re already familiar with

 says Merlin Labs CEO Matthew George
Mathew George | Cargo Facts Symposium

According to George, the Merlin Pilot is “a box that goes into the aircraft”. Depending on the aircraft, a bunch of different interfaces allow the Merlin pilot and the Merlin intelligence to be able to go and control the aircraft surfaces. It is intended to steer the plane by skipping the physical interface and going directly to the electrical control and may not quite literally handle the yoke controlling roll, pitch, and yaw.

Given the fact that this technology is still in its infancy, the company is hiring human factors scientists to figure out the best relation between the Merlin pilot-in-a-box and a human overseer.

Representative | Thai Military and Asian Region

One particularly unique aspect of Merlin’s product is its use of speech recognition to interface with air traffic controllers. The system had to be trained on a range of accents and voice types to ensure it was genuinely robust and useful-says George. He was also quick to add that the human pilot would take over in instances where it would fail.

Philosophically, we believe that air traffic control needs to be able to interact with an autonomous aircraft. The system present-day is designed to be talked to just like a human pilot and will respond just like a human pilot, albeit with a slightly funny voice

says George

However, the software would not be able to detect obstacles, such as birds in the sky or cars on a runway.

Merlin is working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States and the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as the first regulators for certifying its pilot.

In a world where pilots are becoming more scarce, we can enable pilots to be able to go perform other missions where human brains are even more needed. The Air Force, I think, has picked the C-130J as the first testbed for this because it’s the most ubiquitous transport aircraft out there. It is a really good platform to start to think about autonomy in the cockpit in a very real and practical way


Reportedly, the company has previously said that it expects to see autonomous flights that can take off, navigate, land and converse with air traffic control as soon as 2023.


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