Autonomous flight technology developer Merlin has opened a test facility at Kerikeri in New Zealand. The Boston-based company is using a pair of Cessna Caravan aircraft for flight testing as part of the process to achieve certification for the Merlin Pilot system with the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand (CAA).
According to Merlin, it has conducted more than 500 autonomous flights so far, with development work also being done at its Mojave, California test center. It is also seeking FAA approval for the supplemental type certificate (STC) under which it will convert existing aircraft that could also include Textron King Air twin turboprops.
As part of its development work, Merlin said, it has started a partnership with Freightways New Zealand to make cargo deliveries to rural communities in northern New Zealand. This will help it to have a complete understanding of freight cargo operations, which are expected to be an early use case for the Merlin Pilot system.
Earlier this month, the CAA concluded its review of Merlin’s “first stage of involvement” process and approved the company’s Plan for Software Aspects of Certification, which marks the start of New Zealand’s STC process. Merlin is pursuing concurrent CAA/FAA certification under the Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement between the two countries.
However, a spokeswoman for the CAA told FutureFlight that the agency does not intend to approve Merlin's technology for fully autonomous flight. She said that the STC will specify that, at least initially, a pilot in command will have to be on board all flights.
The Merlin facility in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands region includes an aircraft hangar, maintenance workshops, and offices. Recently, the company deployed its first Caravan test aircraft to support relief operations to communities impacted by serious flooding.
Merlin is among several companies, also including Xwing and Reliable Robotics, that are looking to enable autonomous commercial flights, in part to ease the shortage of qualified pilots. Last year, the company announced that it had raised $105 million through a Series B funding round, taking the total reported funding to $130 million.
This story was updated on May 31 to clarify the terms under which the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority intends to approve the supplemental type certificate for Merlin's autonomous flight technology.