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Ameriflight plans autonomous flight for existing fleet
Ameriflight is to upgrade its cargo fleet with autonomous flight capability. The carrier flies for express delivery groups and this should allow it to capitalise on growth opportunities and mitigate the industry's pilot shortage.
Ameriflight's cargo fleet is to be enabled with autonomous capability.

US Part 135 cargo airline Ameriflight is to equip its fixed wing fleet with autonomous and semi-autonomous flight capability from US developer Merlin Labs.

Ameriflight provides regional cargo aircraft services for overnight express carriers such as UPS, FedEx and DHL with a fleet of more than 150 aircraft comprising Beech 99 and 1900, Embraer 120 Brasilia and Fairchild SA227 types. This partnership allows Ameriflight to future-proof its aircraft with early implementation of autonomous capabilities, ready for industry approval.

"We believe Merlin's technology is not only the furthest along, but also the most applicable to what our customers need," says Ameriflight president and CEO Paul Chase. "It will potentially allow us to provide autonomous or semi-autonomous flight at a cost of added deployability that we think works best for our customers relative to other options."

Merlin has flown hundreds of take off-to-touchdown missions, performed thousands of simulated test hours and integrated its platform into four different aircraft types, from single engine to complex, multi-engine aircraft. In September, it reached an agreement on an approach for the certification of aircraft autonomy.

Merlin's 'crawl, walk, run' approach to deploying autonomy and commitment to safety resonated with Chase: "Today, a pilot might come to us with a 1,000 hours of flight experience. With the processes that Merlin uses to certify its technology, we're putting the equivalent of much more experience into the cockpit on day one. You don't have this learning curve that pilots need to go through, and that lowers the overall risk profile to the airline. That's a win for our pilots, our customers and our company."

According to Chase, the industry's pilot shortage is a major driver for the partnership with Merlin; he notes that finding skilled pilots in the current environment is difficult enough: "That's just a reality for our growing business. It's imperative that we complement, not replace, our existing team of fixed wing pilots with autonomous pilots. We have ample opportunities for growth in front of us with the increased level of e-commerce, disruptions in the supply chain et cetera. But we can't capitalise on that in any significant way unless we solve this staffing problem in a scalable and cost-effective way."

Another key driver is cost savings. The airline's current aircraft are a good fit for its customers when it comes to size and rate. Updating the existing fleet with next-generation technology will allow Ameriflight to pair world class technology with best-in-class pricing.

"Merlin is designing a solution to allow our existing fleet to become autonomous rather than requiring us to upgrade our aircraft, which would come at a very high capital cost," Chase continues. "By using the aircraft's existing functionality and enabling us to update the cockpit and avionics equipment, Merlin is making it possible to extend fleet life at a relatively affordable cost."

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