08 October 2023

Merlin Labs - The Part Time Freight Airline

Since the 29th of June 2023 Merlin Labs has been operating a part-time or sideline air freight service in New Zealand alongside its main focus of researching and developing unmanned flight operations.

New Zealand's journey towards unmanned flight operations began on the 20th of July 2020 when the Government's Under-Secretary for Regional Economic Development, Fletcher Tabuteau, announced a number of Provincial Growth Fund packages for companies in the top of the South Island. Among these was a $3 million Infrastructure Reference Group investment in Apollo Aviation - Hawk Eye Limited and Apollo Autonomy - to further develop software that will enable unmanned airfreight operations, with an operation run out of Nelson and initial piloted flights between Nelson, Westport and Christchurch. The Apollo Aviation project will create up to 10 jobs in the short term, and between 25-40 permanent jobs as the project develops

The following month, on the 6th of August 2020, the Nelson Weekly gave a good background to the players and the company that was eventually going to take to the New Zealand skies as Merlin Labs... A Boston-based startup and the founder of a Middle Eastern air freight company are planning to make Nelson the world’s centre of unmanned aircraft flight – powered entirely by artificial intelligence. And now they have New Zealand Government backing to the tune of $3 million. However, that number represents a tiny portion of what Apollo Flight Research and Hawke Eye plan to spend on the project. The companies have a vision to achieve the first world’s first unmanned flight certification which would allow it to operate commercially. “It’s a big game changer,” says John Chisolm of Hawke Eye. “It will attract people from all over the world to see it, so it will be good for Nelson.” John, who lives in the Nelson region, has had a long career in logistics and freight aircraft – including starting Texel Air in Bahrain several years ago. He was approached by Matt George of Merlin Labs, trading as Apollo Aviation, to develop the concept of bringing that company’s IP to New Zealand. Merlin Labs, based in Boston, has had backing from several venture capital companies in its seed round, including backers of ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft. The company uses technology including artificial intelligence, machine-learning, and systems similar to those used in driverless cars. The aircraft differ from drones, which are operated by a pilot. Speaking from the United States, Matt said the company already had competed successful test flights in the Mojave Desert in California. In the Nelson project, the idea is to put that technology into existing aircraft, such as Cessna Caravans, to start unmanned freight flights between Nelson, the West Coast and Canterbury. That project will take place over at least two years, carrying an onboard safety pilot in all the early phases. John says that it is all in service of reinventing the flight industry to save costs on freight. “A critical differentiator of Apollo’s system is the use of existing affordable aircraft that are already certified and approved for operation without the need for complex aircraft development.” Matt says the company elected to centre the company’s civil certification programme in New Zealand because of the country’s supportive regulatory and business environment. He also says the Civil Aviation Authority has a “progressive approach” to go along with the country’s relatively uncluttered airspace. In Boston, Apollo employs a team of highly qualified professionals in several fields including artificial intelligence and machine learning scientists, test pilots, flight test engineers, data analysts, aircraft maintenance, repair and modification and avionics. Matt says most of these skills will be replicated in New Zealand, requiring significant employment of skilled personnel, and Apollo will be making a substantial investment in the New Zealand operation. Apollo has also approached New Zealand universities and research agencies to identify collaborative research opportunities. months. 

Cessna 172S ZK-CTY was the first aircraft registered to Apollo Flight Research NZ Limited on the 22nd of December 2020. On the 7th of April 2021 a change of ownership showed it registered to Merlin Labs NZ Limited.

The surprise was Merlin Lab's Cessna 172 ZK-CTY at Kerikeri on 7 January 2023

With the Covid-19 Pandemic demand fell Milford Sounds Flights leased Merlin Labs Cessna 208B Grand Caravan ZK-MCS and this aircraft became the platform for the prototype Merlin Labs New Zealand unmanned freighter aircraft. After a short time Merlin Labs have decided they wanted a Caravan with a Legacy cockpit rather than the G1000 cockpit ZK-MCS was equipped with and this aircraft went to Barrier Air as ZK-SDE

Carrying Merlin Labs titles, Cessna 208B Grand Caravan ZK-MCS at Hamilton on 2 June 2021

Cessna 208B Grand Caravan ZK-MCS was replaced with another another Cessna Grand Caravan from Milford Sound Flights, ZK-MCL. This was leased by Merlin Labs from August 2021 to December 2022.

On the 16th of September 2021 Aviation Today announced that the Civil Aviation Authority had awarded Merlin Labs its first certification basis for an autonomous flight system that day having developed a “takeoff to touchdown” autonomy system for aircraft that will perform all the duties of a human pilot. The system uses a “sense, think, act” control loop to complete these tasks, Matthew George, Founder and CEO of Merlin Labs, told Aviation Today. The avionics system uses GPS/INS, air data, and attitude and heading reference system (ADHRS) to update the system with a three-dimensional position of the aircraft and its attitude at all times. The system uses a flight computer to do the thinking part of the autonomy which can be adjusted for a specific aircraft type. “The thinking is done by our flight Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) computer which has knowledge of the desired flight path and information about airport approach and departure routes,” George said. “The flight plan has to be executed while taking into account regulatory flight rules, as well as aircraft performance limits. In fact, a significant part of our development process is focused on tuning our control system to the detailed flight dynamics of the specific aircraft type to be able to plan and fly trajectories like a pilot would.”  The system then performs actions using actuators connected to the aircraft which are directed by the flight computer. “The flight computer commands a number of actuators that are mechanically connected to the aircraft,” George said. “Thus, the system can 'act,' by causing the physical surfaces of the aircraft to move, just as a pilot would do with the yoke, pedals or throttle levers. In this way, the flight computer can direct the aircraft through its entire flight path. The unique thing about our system is that our computer is sophisticated enough and our actuators are strong enough to fly an aircraft not just up and away (like typical autopilots), but also through all phases of takeoff and landing, stop to stop.” The system is still flying with an onboard safety pilot to function as the legal pilot in command. 

Merlin Labs has been testing its system for the last two years achieving 53,000 km of autonomous flight. “The Merlin system has flown on four experimental test aircraft for a total of 380 sorties over the last two years, with over 53,000 km of autonomous flying,” George said. “This testing includes up and away patterns, waypoints, loiters as well as autonomous takeoff and landing on the 10 different runways in our FAA-designated test area.” The certification project is a joint project with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to be able to gain certification for the system in New Zealand and the U.S. concurrently, George said. “Now that we have an issued certification basis, we’ll continue to work with the regulator to validate our approach, culminating in entrance to commercial service,” George said. “There are various engagement points along the way that are agreed to in our certification plan and we will be following those. In parallel, we are continuing our work to advance the next steps toward full autonomy.”

Merlin Labs took delivery of its own Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, VH-LYT,  on the 1st of October 2021 Unfortunately, while on its ferry flight from Australia, it experience serious damage from lightning strikes. It was placed on New Zealand register as ZK-MLN on the 15th of October 2021 but the damage was such that it didn't fly to Palmerston North until the 8th of March 2022.

Merlin Labs' Cessna 208B Grand Caravan ZK-MLN at Paraparaumu on 13 August 2022

Cessna TU206F Turbo Stationair ZK-OAY was registered to Merlin Labs NZ Ltd on the 16th of September 2022 and this became ZK-MLP a couple of months later on the 14th of November 2022

Cessna 206 ZK-MLP taken at Paraparaumu by Jordan Elvy on 19 December 2022

Initially Merlin Labs were based at Papaparaumu's Kāpiti Coast Airport. Merlin Lab's local CEO, Shaun Johnson, told Kāpiti Urban Eventually, I felt the pull to my hometown. I think it was the appeal of giving something back to the next generation. I ended up having a conversation with the Chief Executive of the Far North District Council and he explained how unemployment is a real problem, getting kids into high-value jobs is a problem… I wanted to do something to help change something there, and amazingly, after giving my two cents, Far North Holdings said they would build us a hangar. The council had asked ‘why Kerikeri?’, and the answer was two-fold. First, the terrain and the airspace, which is similar to Kāpiti, is ideal for the projects we were dreaming about. Second, there ended up being three of us from Kerikeri who incidentally all joined the Air Force and by chance had come back together. That combined interest in doing something in the place where we were from is a big part of why we’ve seen such success... They built us a brand new, purpose-built flight test facility, which we lease back off them, and we were able to put down roots.  

Air Cargo Week announced on the 26th of May 2023 that Merlin, the leading developer of safe, autonomous flight technology for fixed-wing aircraft, has announced the opening of its center for operations in Kerikeri, New Zealand. With the opening of this facility, Merlin is now equipped with a dedicated test environment to support further technological development and certification activities of its New Zealand-based Cessna Caravans that underpin the capability, safety, and effectiveness of its autonomous flight technology. 

This article also announced details of the new air freight service. Merlin has also partnered with Freightways New Zealand to deliver freight to northern New Zealand, creating a multi-purpose facility that provides substantial and invaluable first-hand experience in freight carrier operations. 

Putting regional facilities in place enables Merlin to meticulously evaluate its equipment and technology. The testing completed in New Zealand and the corresponding learnings will guide future development decisions to be implemented worldwide, ensuring in-air operability and certification with the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) and Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand (CAA). This announcement follows Merlin’s recent achievement, Stage of Involvement (SOI) 1, with the CAA announced on 15th May. “Before autonomous flight can scale, we must conduct a considerable amount of prerequisite work. As a birthplace of aviation innovation, New Zealand has more than 100 years of history-making work. It’s exciting to have Merlin’s best-in-class capabilities here and put them to the test,” Shaun Johnson, CEO of Merlin New Zealand, said. “Our talented team is devoted to ensuring a more resilient air network continues to safely grow globally. With this new facility, we now have the infrastructure needed to modify aircraft with the Merlin Pilot while simultaneously running freight operations in support of rural New Zealand.” 

This testing facility puts Merlin at the forefront of autonomous flight innovation, providing ample opportunity to increase its technical maturity. With a test, learn, and iterate approach, this center for operations will rapidly increase Merlin’s progress to scale the future of autonomy. To date, Merlin has conducted over 500 autonomous flights. The Merlin New Zealand facility in the Bay of Islands includes an aircraft hangar, maintenance workshops, and office space. The primary focus in New Zealand is the advanced development of Merlin technology and certification activities. 

When possible, this facility is also available to support broader New Zealand aerospace activities, including a recent New Zealand Defence Force parachute training school deployment to the region. Additionally, Merlin’s first test aircraft were deployed in recent weeks to assist in the regional flood relief efforts, showcasing Merlin’s commitment to supporting the community in which it works while simultaneously advancing its technical capabilities.

A few days later Merlin Labs took delivery of Cessna 208B Super Cargomaster N208FF which arrived from the USA on the 29th of May 2023.

Merlin Lab's Cessna 208B Super Cargomaster N208FF at Auckland after its delivery flight on 30 May 2023. It had arrived into Auckland the previous evening.

The Cargomaster was placed on the New Zealand civil register as ZK-MLO on the 7th of June 2023.

Merlin Labs operated their first air freight flight on the 29th of June 2023 when Cessna 208B Super Cargomaster ZK-MLO flew from Kerikeri's Bay of Islands' Airport to Palmerston North before positioning to Paraparaumu. An article in the Northern Advocate on the 26th of June had reported that Merlin has signed a deal with Freightways businesses Fieldair, Parceline and New Zealand Couriers to deliver the cargoes. The first flight will be on Thursday, when the companies will deliver domestic courier items from the Boston-based tech firm’s NZ outpost of Kerikeri to Auckland and through to Palmerston North in an increasingly autonomous capacity. At first, two pilots will continue to supervise the trips while the Merlin team integrates its software and hardware into the Cessna fleet on-site. Freightways trucks and couriers will then pick up the cargo and integrate the items into the nationwide courier network, creating efficiencies and another option for congestion or emergencies on the road that will support the current team to meet service standards in New Zealand. 

"More regular" flights began on the 4th of July 2023. Merlin Lab's freight flights run, which are always operated by the Cessna 208B Super Cargomaster ZK-MLO, fly on a semi-scheduled ad-hoc basis. When flight operate a Kerikeri-Palmertson North service  departs Kerikeri about 5.00pm to arrive at Palmerston North at about 7.00pm. The return service departs Palmerston North at about 8.15pm to arrive at Auckland at 9.30pm. The final sector back to Kerikeri departs at about 10.00pm to arrive about 10.45pm. Three to four of these flight schedules are operated each week, generally on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Occasionally Kerikeri-Auckland return services are operated instead.

In saying "more regular" that doesn't mean the flights are regular. Since I wrote this post there seemed to be a Kerikeri-Auckland return service operated on Mondays over two or three weeks but then the Palmerston North flights seemed to recede.

Cessna 208B Super Cargomaster ZK-MLO at Kerikeri on 5 September 2023.

ZK-MLO being towed across the airport for refuelling and loading its freight

On the way to Palmerston North, ZK-MLO on the taxi and backtrack at Kerikeri

From the 4th of October 2023 the pattern of the regular freight flights changed with the aircraft operating return Kerikeri-Auckland flights. The last Kerikeri-Palmerston North-Auckland-Kerikeri routine was operated on the 27th of September. These flights usually operate Monday to Thursday with the flights leaving Kerikeri at about 5.00pm and then flights returning to Kerikeri leaving in the early evening. On occasions the aircraft stops at Whangarei on the southbound flight. On the 11th of October Cessna Grand Caravan ZK-MLN was used on the service for the first time and it has continued to be used alongside ZK-MLO.

From the 28th of November 2023 another flight pattern started with Merlin Labs' freight flights. Instead of flying a late afternoon/early evening Kerikeri-Auckland return service the operator started operating an early morning Kerikeri-Auckland service departing Kerikeri at about 5.00am and then returning from Auckland to Whangarei and then on to Kerikeri. These first of these flights operated on the 29th of November 2023 using Cessna 208B Super Cargomaster ZK-MLO.

Merlin Labs' Cessna 208B Grand Caravan ZK-MLN at Hamilton on 25 November 2023

The regular air freight service ceased on the 15th of December 2023 with Cessna 208B Super Cargomaster ZK-MLO operating from Kerikeri to Auckland and then returning to Kerikeri via Whangarei. Their Cessna 208B Grand Caravan ZK-MLN last operated the service on the 8th of December 2023. Regular services did not resume in 2024 following the summer holidays.

In mid-2024 Merlin Labs' Cessna 208B Super Cargomaster ZK-MLO was chartered by Air Kaikoura to assist their airfreighting of crayfish from Kaikoura to Wellington. The Cargomaster did some proving flights between Kaikoura and Wellington on the 7th, 10th and 12th of May with the first flight from Kaikoura to Wellington operated on the 16th of May 2024. These are non-scheduled freight flights. Normally the aircraft positions from Paraparaumu to Kaikoura before operating an air freight flight from Kaikoura to Wellington. The aircraft then returns to Paraparaumu. The Cargomaster was used to supplement Air Kaikoura's Gippsland Airvan ZK-EHS which remains the mainstay of fulfilling the air freight contract. 

Because of the commercial sensitivity of developing the unmanned flight operations Merlin Labs remains somewhat of a mystery. That is true of its technology development and the operation of its semi-regular air service. Nonetheless Merlin Labs' operation adds a real interesting chapter in the development of regional air services in Aotearoa New Zealand. One wonders what will develop from its operation locally and on the world stage.

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