Air Force Looking At Semi-Autonomous Hercs


The Air Force has contracted a Boston tech company, Merlin Labs, to investigate partially robotizing its C-130J Super Hercules tactical transport aircraft. The announcement led to about $120 million in fresh investment to develop technologies to retrofit existing aircraft for almost autonomous operation. The tech proposed by Merlin will not deliver gate-to-gate autonomy, but Merlin CEO Matthew George, who’s 32, says the pilot-monitoring model overcomes some of the major obstacles to bringing autonomous flight features to market, only some of which are technological.

“We think that the hardest problem truly is certification,” George told Forbes. Almost half of his 70 employees are dedicated to the paperwork but the company did make some headway in New Zealand last fall. The somewhat geek-friendly Civil Aviation Authority gave Merlin “certification basis” for a limited autonomy kit for a Caravan. At first, at least one pilot will be onboard to handle the aircraft on the ground and to make sure the system’s artificial intelligence responds appropriately to air traffic control directions. George hopes to have a revenue-producing cargo business using its technology in New Zealand within five years.

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. My father helped program the F18 ACLS for aircraft carriers. The Navy guys didn’t want to let go of the controls… they had to get Marines to do the testing. 😁
    I can see the same thing here until pilots get comfortable the plane will not try to kill them. It is this way with all new tech.
    As a child in the 60s, I was brought into the Atlanta ARTCC by my father. It was smoke filled, with chain smoking controllers punching the keyboards as they stared at the screen with a cursor sweep going around. I was then led to a room where airplanes were being pushed around on a table. People were on headsets listening and moving the planes with sticks. I asked what are these guys doing… they were tracking planes in case the radars go down. Yes, the controllers didn’t trust the new computerized radar system. But, that was the 60s.
    About 20 years later, I was working on those ATC systems as a technician.. and controller smoking was what caused most of the failures. Now they can not live without the modernized computer controlled ATC systems… how things change.

  2. Early elevators in buildings required elevator operators using multiple levers to ‘drive’ the elevator car to the correct floor, match the floor height, and open doors in the right sequence. Later, pushbutton elevators were invented that did all those functions automatically. But the general public was distrustful of this newfangled technology and resisted riding on elevators without an operator for many years.

    Until the elevator operators went on strike.

    Very quickly, people chose automation over inconvenience. Pushbutton elevators rapidly took over. In NYC, the few remaining elevator operators are either driving older freight elevators, or performing a largely ceremonial role.

    While there is a large technological gulf between elevators and airplanes (or even automobiles), I find many of the same themes playing out as automation becomes more and more capable.