The concept of autonomous flying is becoming ever more attractive to the aviation industry. Artificial Intelligence and control systems are reaching high levels of precision and learning, plus the most enticing of all benefits in an open-market-driven economy: cost savings. An example of the advances in this field is the strategy led by Merlin Labs, a company that since 2018 has been making use of this type of artifact to demonstrate how robots can collaborate, first, with the transport of some products without the need for a pilot, and second, as an option for transporting human beings. However, each of these ideas is proposed within the framework of the project as a short-term and long-term plan, respectively.
The company reached an agreement with Dynamic Aviation, a US aircraft supplier, on the option of having some 46 King Air aircraft, which use twin-turbo propulsion. This initiative has been supported by Merlin Labs’ recent past, recalling that the company has already managed to receive funding of up to $25 million by companies such as Google Ventures; money with which it has been able to develop its technology.
According to the company, both the hardware and the software can be adapted to any aircraft, as demonstrated in several test flights with three different airplanes. The tests have lasted a minimum of 10 minutes and a maximum of several hours in the air. Although the planes have flown in an autonomous way, there’s always been a safety pilot who would act in case something happened with the aircraft’s autonomous system; however, it is something that is intended to be dispensed with in the future.
Regarding the initiative to start delivering products with the help of autonomous aircraft, Merlin has said that it expects to start with this project in the coming months in order to be a support for retailers, especially in California, who were not able to meet the timing of their orders because of the pandemic. Although the health crisis made online shopping grow, it is the same crisis that has caused delays in the delivery of some products.
Autonomy is going to come to all of the airplanes eventually.Dave Calhoun, Boeing CEO
Boeing believes it’s a matter of time and that both the industry and society will wind up embracing the technology, even if not overnight. “Autonomy is going to come to all of the airplanes eventually,” Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told Bloomberg TV. “The future of autonomy is real for civil aviation.”
Meanwhile, Airbus has been testing a suite of advanced autonomous flight systems it’s calling DragonFly. The UpNext DragonFly demonstrator takes inspiration from the vision and intelligent flight capabilities of the dragonfly. According to the company, DragonFly has now entered the final three months of its testing phase, which will put its flightpath capability, automated landing technology, and pilot assistance technology through its paces.
A dragonfly’s vision works far more quickly than a human’s. Airbus has designed a system that combines sensors, computer vision algorithms and robust guidance calculations to make landing in low visibility or difficult weather conditions much easier. These innovations pave the way for automated landing (if necessary), or can be customized according to the pilot’s flying skills to relieve them of additional processes in the event of an emergency or critical situation. DragonFly’s innovations could allow the aircraft to land at any airport in the world regardless of whether it is equipped with existing ground equipment technology currently used for automatic landing.
One of the main applications of autonomous aircraft is urban air mobility. In megacities, this kind of automated mobility could reduce traffic and increase safety. In the fall of 2022, Wisk Aero revealed the world’s first self-flying, all-electric, four-passenger vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxi. As Wisk’s go-to-market aircraft, Generation 6 represents the first-ever candidate for type certification by the FAA of an autonomous eVTOL. Wisk Aero is a leading Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) company and pioneer in autonomous electric flights.
The most advanced air taxi in the world, Generation 6 combines industry-leading autonomous technology and software, human oversight of every flight, and an overall simplified design to deliver one of the safest passenger transport systems in commercial aviation.
Wisk is backed by two aviation leaders, The Boeing Company and Kitty Hawk Corporation. Additionally, through its strategic partnership with Boeing, Wisk has a competitive advantage leveraging 100+ years of Boeing expertise in aircraft development, scale manufacturing, and certification. In addition, Boeing’s eVTOL and autonomy engineering resources help further advance Wisk’s development.
With this aircraft, Wisk will redefine long-standing concepts of flight and usher in a safer, scalable, and more accessible era in aviation. Wisk’s newest aircraft will set the standard for the air taxi market and the future of travel.