Merlin to develop autonomous flight capability for USAF KC-135

A KC-135 Stratotanker approaches to land.
Curimedia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Merlin, a developer of autonomous flight technology for fixed-wing aircraft, has entered into an agreement with the United States Air Force (USAF).

In collaboration with Air Mobility Command (AMC) and Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), Merlin will design, integrate, test, and demonstrate aspects of the Merlin Pilot on the KC-135 Stratotanker for the first time.

The Merlin-USAF Collaboration

Under this lead collaboration, Merlin will work in partnership with the Air Mobility Command (AMC) and Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) to revolutionize the capabilities of the KC-135 Stratotanker.

This multi-year collaborative effort aims to design, integrate, test, and demonstrate the autonomous flight Merlin Pilot on the KC-135, heralding a paradigm shift in aerial operations.

Crew Workload Reduction

The partnership follows a meticulous stepwise approach, commencing with the primary objective of reducing crew workload.

This initial phase sets the foundation for subsequent advancements, ultimately leading to the realization of autonomous uncrewed operations for the KC-135 Stratotanker – a notable advancement for aviation.

KC-135 Stratotanker (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shannon Bowman)

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Pioneering Technologies for Critical Missions

Merlin’s agreement with the USAF will aim to leverage technological innovation to achieve the end goal of enhancing critical mission capabilities.

By harnessing dual-use technologies, Merlin’s system promises to serve as a linchpin in the USAF’s strategic endeavors while providing invaluable insights for the Next Generation Air-Refueling System (NGAS).

A series of joint USAF-Merlin flight demonstrations will include basic air refueling operations, and showcase how its dual-use technologies can serve critical USAF missions as well as help inform the planned NGAS system.

Flight Demonstrations and Integration

The journey towards achieving operational excellence encompasses a series of meticulously planned flight demonstrations and integration efforts.

These endeavors, undertaken jointly by the USAF and Merlin, will include basic air refueling operations and highlight the versatility of Merlin’s advanced automation systems.

Integration Across Aircraft Platforms

Merlin’s foray into the KC-135 realm marks yet another milestone in its autonomous flight journey. Previous successful integrations have been achieved on light commercial aircraft.

The KC-135 represents the developer’s sixth unique aircraft integration, alongside the Beechcraft King Air, de Havilland Twin Otter, Cessna Caravan, Long-EZ, and Cozy Mark IV.

Matt George, CEO, and co-founder of Merlin, explains the wider relevance of the latest military collaboration.

“Integrating onto one of the most abundant and important military aircraft in the USAF’s fleet allows Merlin to materially evolve our advanced automation systems,” remarked George.

He emphasized the pivotal role of this partnership in maturing functional autonomy across the force, underscoring the company’s commitment to advancing aviation safety and efficiency.


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By Len Varley - Assistant Editor 3 Min Read
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