Merlin, a developer of safe, autonomous flight technology for fixed-wing aircraft, has announced it has entered into an agreement with the United States Air Force. In collaboration with Air Mobility Command  and Air Force Materiel Command, Merlin will design, integrate, test, and demonstrate aspects of the Merlin Pilot on the KC-135 Stratotanker for the first time. The multi-year partnership is focused on using a stepwise approach starting with reducing crew workload, then proceeding to reduced crew operations. As the system gains experience and trust, it will pave the way for autonomous uncrewed operations of the KC-135; an unprecedented new capability for AMC and the USAF. Merlin and the USAF’s collaboration will include, but is not limited to, system integration, ground testing, and extended flight demonstrations.

Merlin’s agreement with the USAF builds on recently completed ground surveys, in-flight data collection, human factors studies, and initial integration designs with the goal of achieving in-flight demonstration of the Merlin Pilot in the next year. A series of joint USAF-Merlin flight demonstrations will include basic air refueling operations, and showcase how its dual-use technologies can serve critical USAF missions as well as help inform the planned Next Generation Air-Refueling System (NGAS). The KC-135 represents Merlin’s sixth unique aircraft integration, alongside the Beechcraft King Air, de Havilland Twin Otter, Cessna Caravan, Long-EZ, and Cozy Mark IV.

“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. Our work with Air Mobility Command will build meaningful operating data, serving as an important step to maturing functional autonomy across the force,” said Matt George, CEO and co-founder, Merlin. “We are proud to continue our work with the USAF as they expand safe, reduced crew options for their aircraft to advance and scale for future operational needs.”