A new type of pilot could be key to solving a looming crisis in the skies

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A fully autonomous aviator, equipped with artificial intelligence, could help alleviate a looming pilot shortage, according to the head of a company working on the tech.

“We simply don’t have enough pilots to be able to keep up with the burgeoning need for things in the sky,” Merlin Labs CEO Matt George told Fox News. “It’s something that we need to start looking forward at to design an aviation system and design an aerospace system … as the demand for aviation grows around the world.”

The airline industry will be short 13,300 pilots by 2032, the management consulting firm Oliver Wyman projected last year, when it found there was a shortage of about 12,710 aviators. And the Air Force, one of Merlin’s main clients, has been about 2,000 pilots short of its target for years, and, according to Stars and Stripes, was offering up to $600,000 in bonuses to retain experienced aviators.

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“The amount of commercial traffic in the world doubles every 15 years,” George said. “As billions and billions of new consumers come online who also want their package delivered in two days or less or also want to be able to go access the air system … we need to think differently about humanity’s relationship to the sky.”

Merlin aims to both alleviate the shortage by replacing one human pilot in cargo plane cockpits with its software and make the remaining aviator’s job easier by taking on some of their responsibilities. George stressed that this would make flying safer, adding that his company’s system largely relies on traditional aviation technology and only uses AI to fill in the gaps.

“The Merlin software is designed to perform what we call the aviate, navigate and communicate functions traditionally performed by a human pilot,” George said. “The system is determining where the aircraft should go, how the aircraft should interact in airspace, even things like understanding the instructions of air traffic controllers and talking back.”

Merlin Labs AI plane

Merlin Labs CEO Matt George teased an upcoming announcement about the certification for its AI pilot. (Courtesy of Snowpoint Ventures)

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Human pilots, as a result, can focus more on the larger mission and “use their brains for what matters versus using their brains for performing basic aviation functions,” George continued.

Last month, Merlin announced that aspects of its autonomous pilot would be tested and demonstrated on the Air Force’s KC-135 Stratotanker, an aerial refueling jet. George also teased that an announcement would come in a few weeks “around some of the final endpoints in our [civil] certification process as we start to bring it to market.”

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KC-135 Stratotanker shows refueling connector.

Merlin Labs announced that it would partner with the U.S. Air Force to test and demonstrate aspects of its autonomous pilot software on the KC-135 Stratotanker. (Joel Lerner/Xinhua via Getty Images)

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Still, George emphasized that human pilots won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

“We think that the future is a combination of autonomy and humans,” George said. “This isn’t necessarily a bunch of aircraft flying around without people aboard, but it’s a bunch of aircraft flying around with high levels of autonomy that are supplementing the humans’ capability aboard the aircraft.”



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