USAF Taps Merlin for Self-Flying KC-135 Tanker Aircraft Testing

The US Air Force has tapped Merlin Labs to test autonomous flight technology for the KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft.

The stepwise approach will begin with reducing crew workload and then proceeds to reduced crew operations, the Boston-based aviation technology firm explained.

A reduced workload could help the crew avoid costly mistakes. 

Autonomous uncrewed operations at the final stage could see the elimination of crew altogether.

Stepping Stone for Next-Gen Air-Refueling System

The multi-year agreement includes system integration, ground testing, and flight demonstrations of aspects of Merlin Pilot from next year, including basic aerial refueling operations.

Demonstrations will showcase the technology’s utility for critical US Air Force missions and help inform the planned Next Generation Air-Refueling System

“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, which includes enabling autonomous close formation flying for the KC-135,” Merlin CEO Matt George said. 

“Our work with Air Mobility Command will build meaningful operating data, serving as an important step to maturing functional autonomy across the force.” 

Merlin Pilot

The scalable technology is compatible with a range of aircraft.

It reportedly steers and maintains an aircraft’s flight course and conducts autonomous take-off and landing. 

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

The air force tested the technology on a C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft in 2022.

Related Articles

Back to top button