You can’t imagine it at busy airports like Schiphol, but what if some planes did not have a pilot but flew autonomously? That is already happening. Not at Schiphol, but in the desert in California. There, the start-up Merlin Labs is busy experimenting with its Merlin: the self-flying aircraft.
It has not built an aircraft from scratch, but has started a collaboration with Dynamic Aviation. The Merlins are 46 King Air twin-turbo-propeller aircraft that are used to transport people as well as parcels. However, the technology that Merlin Labs has developed is not just for these aircraft, because the idea is that the software and hardware the company makes can be used in all types of aircraft.
It sounds like it came out of nowhere, but Merlin Labs has been working on this for quite some time. It recently received a substantial investment of 25 million dollars from Google Ventures, among others, which has given more publicity to this technological innovation. A lot has also been tested: a lot of flying hours have already been achieved with different types of aircraft, although King Air is the most used.
The planes are not launched into the air like a drone with a pilot on the ground. At the moment there is still a pilot on the plane for safety. Imagine if the system goes haywire anyway, then he or she can take over and hopefully prevent accidents. There are no other people on board. That is not necessary either, because in the first instance this technology is intended to transport parcels rather than people.
According to Merlin, this is important, among other things, because the number of online purchases has increased enormously, partly due to the corona virus. In addition, you can say in this context that people are not so mobile at the moment, now that all kinds of countries are red and orange and traveling is not as easy as we were used to pre-corona. Sending parcels around with an autonomous aircraft should also be cheaper in the long run than the old-fashioned way. There are no training costs and no entire crew is needed in the aircraft.
The advantage of this is that you have to take people into account less: you can let a plane take off at the strangest times and there is no need for a rest break. There is crew on the ground to keep an eye on the plane, but that is a completely different sport than you now encounter in planes. That may change when, for example, flights with passengers are carried out, but according to Merlin that is still a far-from-our-bed show.
Merlin is not the only autonomous ‘airline’, as there is also Xwing that completed its first successful flight this year. And in another branch of sport, but just as innovative, we were recently able to watch the first long flight of the flying car AirCar. It remains to be seen whether these projects will soon get out of that test phase, but the fact that in any case there is already plenty of flying and significant investments being made, means that we will probably hear more about this in the future. And maybe even see.
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