The US is making strides in the evolution of their enduring transport aircraft and at the heart of the innovation is an autonomous systems supplier called Merlin.

In its latest milestone on 11 June 2024, the company was given the go-ahead to start producing its ‘Merlin Pilot’ technology, which will be used to automate certain aspects in flying the C-130J Super Hercules transporter – an aircraft that is used by more than 20 nations and has been in continuous production for more than 25 years.

Under the new contract the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), a joint combatant command within the Department of Defense, has awarded Merlin $105m to begin working toward a production-ready reduced aircrew capability.

Who’s flying the plane!?

“The target will be the co-pilot,” confirmed a Merlin spokesperson, “the idea is to have a pilot that can fly the C-130 by themselves.”

Taking over the co-pilot, Merlin Pilot will streamline the workload on the aircrew.

“Our production system will look to provide sufficient autonomy and automation to reduce workload below a to-be-determined threshold for single pilot operations,” added the spokesperson.

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Automated communications will be the first autonomy integration Merlin will integrate for workload reduction.

“For the demo, it will perform audio translation to text and once the pilot concurs with the proposed flight changes, the Merlin Pilot will command the aircraft to honor those commands.”

Merlin Pilot is due take over five aircraft types

This latest contract builds on a previous agreement made in February. Signed by Merlin and Air Mobility Command as well as the Air Force Materiel Command, the deal would demonstrate aspects of the product on the KC-135 Stratotanker.

Between the C-130J and the KC-135 these are the bulk of the mobility fleet in the US Air Force.

At the time the founder and CEO of Merlin, Matt George, spoke with Airforce Technology in an exclusive to explain the plans to reduce transporter aircrews across the US Armed Forces.

“So we have integrated the Merlin Pilot on five different aircraft types. So the Merlin pilot, just like human pilot, can transition between different aircraft platform structures.

A KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft is flying at Pittsburgh International Airport as part of a local training mission, 23 February 2024. Credit: DVIDS.

“Each aeroplane is different,” said George. “So having a close collaboration and a close partnership with our customer is tremendously important to be able to go get this done in a way that is very safe and also in a way that is seamless, for the end user and for the end customer as we integrate the Merlin Pilot.”

“Over the years, [these current platforms] will probably be in service for the next 100 years, right? So we’re at a really unique point between the next generation tanker, NGAD and the sort of the tactical side, where these aircraft will be built around autonomy.

“So a big part of the work that we’re doing with the US Air Force and these aircraft, is certainly solving today’s problems, but building that trust and confidence in an autonomy system that can perform and step into being the underpinning for future systems in a way that’s pretty different from how we’ve traditionally deployed aircraft.”