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"Pilotless" plane flies test runs to Alaska villages

A Cessna Grand Caravan outfitted with the "Merlin Pilot" machinery and software waits between test flights at the Everts Air Cargo field at Fairbanks International Airport in June, 2023.
Courtesy of Merlin Labs
A Cessna Grand Caravan outfitted with the "Merlin Pilot" machinery and software waits between test flights at the Everts Air Cargo field at Fairbanks International Airport in June, 2023.

Fairbanks’s drone center is celebrating 25 automated flights to Alaska villages last month. The flights were made in a Cessna Grand Caravan, without a person in the pilot’s seat, (although there was a safety pilot ready to take over on every flight.) The tests demonstrated how emergency medicine, and eventually cargo, could be delivered across the state.

Imagine the cargo plane is coming in to your village on its regular run, and after it lands, you realize there is no pilot aboard. That’s the goal of the test flights this summer in two programs run out of Fairbanks.

Dr. Cathy Cahill oversees the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft System Integration, or ACUASI at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

 “This is work we've been doing with the FAA, proving that we can do air cargo safely between communities in Alaska,” Cahill said.

ACUASI has two decades of drone service on the scientific front - monitoring whales at sea and other wildlife on land, examining wildfire behavior, patrolling oil pipelines, and measuring glaciers and their motion. But later this month, they will test more commercial and public service possibilities.

 “You know, getting cargo out to a village is a problem and maybe if we can cut the cost back someday, that would be -- I think people would be happy not to pay so much for the diapers that get shipped out there,” Adkins said.

That’s ACUASI’s deputy director, Nick Adkins. The program will fly the SeaHunter, a twin-engine drone with a 16-foot wingspan, out of Fairbanks International Airport 40 miles to Nenana, But not on the regular commercial route – just slightly south – to test new systems.

 “So we've been working with partners on developing what's called ‘detect and avoid’ technology where systems onboard our drone will spot other aircraft in the airspace and autonomously avoid them,” Cahill said.

Cahill calls the August test flights “baby steps” toward building a freight-delivery system that can fly beyond the visual line-of-sight that is now required by the FAA for drones.

ACUASI also helped another company with drone research this summer.

The Everts Air Cargo hangar in Fairbanks has been home for the past month to a visiting Cessna Grand Caravan. On the plane is a machine called the “Merlin Pilot.” It’s basically software that converts a flight plan or commands into maneuvers.

Merlin Labs has been working since 2018 to develop autonomous flight. The Grand Caravan just completed 25 pilotless flights out of Fairbanks.

Cahill says it is still quite experimental and requires a ‘safety pilot’ to be on each flight, ready to take over.

 “Who's like a driver's training instructor. They're there in case something screws up, but otherwise, they keep their hands off,” Cahill said.

Ashley Pelzek, is the VP of Merlin Business Operations. She says Merlin labs came to Fairbanks with three safety pilots and enough flight test crew to fly several flights to five Alaska villages.

 “We flew to Fort Yukon, Prudhoe Bay, and then we flew a third route that landed in Galena, Huslia, and Tanana,” Pelzek said.

She said Merlin staffers have been to Alaska several times to plan the test flights.

 “We actually held several meetings with tribal councils and folks ahead of time to give them some information and education on the system and the project because it's one thing to be briefed on what could be like, and another to see the impact directly yourself, which engineers and test pilots and folks like that don't always get to see. That was really special,” Pelzek said.

ACUASI deputy director, Nick Adkins, was in Fort Yukon when the Merlin Pilot landed the Grand Caravan there on one of the test flights.

 “Here's a gravel runway in Fort Yukon, Alaska, and this airplane just landed itself, not some pristine, beautiful runway, um, a gravel runway in the bush,” Adkins said.

In addition to the safety pilot, Adkins says he was most impressed with two engineers who rode in the back of the plane, Aura Reyna and Jackie Scanlon, who were testing voice commands with a tablet connected to the “Merlin Pilot” software.

“When a call comes into the aircraft to let 'em know that, you know, it needs to turn left to a heading or something, it would understand that information and then it would execute the maneuver. It was, uh, a really impressive system, a world first kind of stuff out here in Alaska,” Adkins said.

Pelzek, a former Navy pilot, says Merlin’s partnering with ACUASI is an opportunity for the company to work with the best drone crew in the industry.

“Top notch. Top tier spaces that they're working in, the people that they have there, the technology they're building. And they have a lot of unique use cases there too; they have pipeline monitoring, wildlife monitoring, and search and rescue is a big one, and they have to deal with all kinds of weather. Every single consideration has to be met for them, which again, just feeds into the quality of the, of the work that they're doing,” Pelsek said.

Ahead on the calendar is an international conference to be held in Anchorage in August.

 “Let’s make Alaska, where we have a real need for doing long distance drone operations, let's make Alaska the lead,” Cahill said.

Cahill says the Global Autonomous Systems Conference was Governor Mike Dunleavy’s idea.

“We’re referring to it as the first annual,” Cahill says.

Adkins says ACUASI is going to change Alaska’s economy.

I want like a Silicon Valley of drones here in Fairbanks, Alaska. I want people building drones. I want people programming the computers that run the drones programming and building the payloads that collect the science and the data and the information to make important decisions across the state.

And somebody has to build all of that. And Alaska, we've got a, you know, a massive history of being first in aviation. Anyways, I don't know why this would be any different,” Adkins says.


Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.