As a frontier technology investor, my search for startups at the cutting edge of food, space, and robotics has taken me to some pretty unique places. That's why last fall, I found myself in the middle of the Mojave Desert, squinting into the sun to witness a fully autonomous flight made possible by Merlin Labs. There's nothing quite like seeing a fully autonomous flight from takeoff to touchdown, made possible by a startup that has yet to raise Series A funding. I'm thrilled that today Merlin Labs is coming out of stealth and has announced $25 million in funding led by GV.
"After working pretty quietly on this for three years, we're finally sharing what we're doing: bringing autonomy to commercial aircraft," Merlin Labs CEO Matthew George reveals. Merlin builds hardware and software to enable fully safe and autonomous aircraft to fly. In addition to today's funding, Merlin has also announced a partnership with Dynamic Aviation to deploy 46 autonomous planes powered by the Merlin system.
"We have a motley crew of folks in autonomous driving, aerospace, and robotics. We're combining the best learning from those three disciplines to create a capable software and hardware set that will take a 10,000-pound aircraft and fly it fully autonomously," explains Matthew.
A significant amount of entrepreneurial energy has gone into aerial drones over the last decade. Consumer and commercial drones emerged thanks to a combination of smartphone technology, which dramatically reduced the price of inertial navigation sensors and GPS receivers, and lithium-ion battery technology, which got to energy densities that make fully electric flight possible.
"When the Wright brothers first flew, there were 1.5 billion people in the world."
Merlin saw the opportunity in these technological advancements and entered the market at an inflection point. "When the Wright brothers first flew, there were 1.5 billion people in the world," says Matthew. "Now we're over 7 billion people. All of these people around the world need to access the commercial air cargo network; to deliver and receive goods; and be able to move around freely. To be able to power a truly 21st-century world, we need to fundamentally rethink how we deliver autonomy to aerospace."
The existing air cargo and passenger infrastructure and the market is huge, so the market opportunity for Merlin Labs is significant: the global air freight market is expected to reach $376 billion by 2027 and is growing at a ~5% CAGR. While the Covid-19 coronavirus decimated passenger traffic to levels not seen since 1999, e-commerce volumes have spiked, and cargo demand only fell slightly at 10%. In lay terms, Matthew says, "As more people move online and can receive items they bought in two days or less, the way we use the air above us has changed dramatically. Merlin is creating a ubiquitous autonomy layer that lets people put very large objects in the sky, have those objects do useful things — and ultimately, improve life on the ground."
Merlin Labs' development approach in terms of speed and process is impressive. As Matt observes, "There is no playbook of how to develop large autonomous aircraft. Finding people with very different skill sets has enabled us to deliver results on a really short timeframe."
It's a privilege to watch Merlin build that playbook, and I couldn't be more excited to watch Matt and the whole team take flight.