Boston-based Merlin Labs, Inc. said on May 30 that it is using data from flights of a KC-135 at MacDill AFB, Fla., “to better understand crew workload drivers and gather data to expand the autonomous capabilities of the Merlin Pilot for military use cases.”

“Conducted on May 14 and 15, the two flights enabled Merlin’s engineers to assess the tasks that pilots execute in-flight to determine where advanced automation capabilities would be the most impactful for safety, cost savings, and efficiency,” the company said.

On May 16, the 6th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill confirmed the testing but did not reveal the name of the company.

Boeing [BA] has been exploring an autonomous boom for the Air Force KC-46A Pegasus refueler to eliminate the need for boom operators (Defense Daily, June 15, 2022).

Merlin CEO Matt George said on May 30 that the data from the KC-135 flights on May 14 and 15 “is critical to our phased approach to autonomy, starting with reduced crew operations, and to materially evolving our advanced automation systems.”

“Being able to observe multiple aerial refueling flights and see exactly how pilots are focused on critical tasks like take-off, landing, and communications in operational military use cases has given us valuable insight into how Merlin’s technology solution can best support the Air Force,” he said.

“The Air Force is strategically integrating autonomy as a key enabler for global missions,” Merlin said. “With safety and efficiency at the forefront, Merlin’s technological advances are able to support the relationship between the pilot and their aircraft. During any given Air Force mission, a pilot could be focused on a multitude of tasks at once.”

“Operational mission responsibilities are extremely diverse and pilot tasks align to each given mission,” Merlin said. “Focus areas could be tied to humanitarian, surveillance, command and control, air superiority or many others. Learning about task priorities and complexity gives Merlin engineers insight into how to maximize automation and autonomous processes to allow pilots to focus on the most critical tasks at any given time.”

In February, Merlin said that it had signed a multi-year Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Air Mobility Command (AMC) and Air Force Materiel Command to develop and integrate the Merlin Pilot on the KC-135 to inform the Next Generation Air Refueling System and “pave the way for autonomous uncrewed operations of the KC-135–an unprecedented new capability for AMC and the USAF.”