FLYING Magazine

The U.S. Air Force has entered into an agreement with Merlin to demonstrate the company’s autonomous flight technology on the KC-135 Stratotanker, the company announced.

Under the deal announced Tuesday, Merlin will design, integrate, test, and demonstrate aspects of its Merlin Pilot autonomous flight technology on the aerial refueling tanker. In-flight demonstrations will take place in the next year, starting with a series of basic air refueling operations that reduce aircrew workload and eventually proceeding to operations with reduced crew numbers, according to the company.

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The Merlin team in front of KC-135 Stratotanker. [Courtesy: Merlin]

“Integrating onto one of the most abundant and important military aircraft in the [Air Force’s] fleet allows Merlin to materially evolve our advanced automation systems, which includes enabling autonomous close formation flying for the KC-135,” said Matt George, CEO and co-founder of Merlin. “Our work with Air Mobility Command will build meaningful operating data, serving as an important step to maturing functional autonomy across the force.” 

The partnership represents the latest exploration of operating military aircraft with reduced aircrews. The Air Force has experimented with conducting an aerial refueling mission on a KC-46A Pegasus with only a pilot and boom operator. In February 2022, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) conducted a trial of operating a UH-60A Black Hawk during a 30-minute flight with no pilot or crew on board.

READ MORE: A UH-60A Black Hawk Just Flew With No Pilot On Board

The announcement builds on the Boston-based startup’s existing industry partnerships, including New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority. In April, Merlin was awarded a $1 million contract from the FAA to demonstrate its automated flight control system designed to reduce the workload of—and eventually remove—human pilots.

“We have integrated the Merlin Pilot onto a variety of commercial aircraft and surrogate platforms,” George told FLYING. “This partnership will be the first time that Merlin deploys its technology on the KC-135 directly, which opens up a world of opportunity for the Merlin Pilot’s deployment across other larger DOD [Department of Defense] platforms.” 

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In addition to the KC-135, the technology has been integrated onto platforms including the Beechcraft King Air, de Havilland Twin Otter, Cessna Caravan, Long-EZ, and Cozy Mark IV.

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