A Michigan Air National Guard KC-135T from the 171st Air Refueling Squadron flies from at Selfridge ANG Base in 2020.

A Michigan Air National Guard KC-135T from the 171st Air Refueling Squadron flies from at Selfridge ANG Base in 2020. U.S. Air National Guard / Munnaf Joarder

Two startups join forces to make self-flying tankers, dogfighting AI, and more

Merlin Labs, which aims to test an AI-powered KC-135 within a year, is to buy F-16 AI driver EpiSci.

One startup has Air Force contracts to rig a KC-135 tanker and C-130 airlifter for autonomous flight; the other created the AI pilot moving on in a DARPA dogfighting program. Now they’re joining forces.

Last week, the Boston-based Merlin Labs announced that it would acquire EpiSci, a California-based firm whose AI helped take Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall on a high-profile spin in an F-16 last month.

EpiSci, and its sub, PhysicsAI, are the only teams that have been a part of all three chapters of DARPA’s effort to develop an AI fighter pilot: the 2020 AlphaDogfight Trials, the 2020-24 Air Combat Evolution Program, and—as of last week—the Artificial Intelligence Reinforcements program. Of the four companies whose AI agents operated on Kendall’s flight, EpiSci CEO Bo Ryu said, his company’s was the “most trusted and best performing.” 

Merlin, which makes an AI pilot of its own, expects to test it aboard an Air Force KC-135 tanker within the next year, said CEO Matt George. This “core” pilot could allow the Air Force to reduce the number of pilots on its mobility aircraft from two to one, freeing up a bunch of aircrew—and enabling the Air Force to watch the AI operate during real-world missions with a human next to it, he said.

If the EpiSci deal closes as expected in the next two to three months, Merlin will be able to add advanced skills, such as F-16 qualifications, to its core pilot. That would make the company the first to offer an AI pilot that can fly various types of missions, George said.

In February, Merlin signed a deal with the Air Force to demo its AI pilot on a KC-135; just last week, the company won a $105 million contract to bring that pilot onto C-130 transport aircraft. The company will start its KC-135 work over the next couple of months and fly the aircraft with the autonomous system in the next year, George said. After that, it will move on to C-130 tests. 

“Lockheed Martin or Northrop or any one of the other big primes—they're incredible at what they do, but ultimately it's going to be companies like us who are able to go provide some of the true autonomy that's able to go complement some of their more traditional platform structures, services, and infrastructure,” George said. 

Merlin’s recent contracts and acquisition of EpiSci come as the future of the Air Force looks more and more unmanned. After Secretary Kendall’s flight with EpiSci’s AI pilot, he said he can see a future where AI agents will fly in war and do it better than humans. Air Force leaders have since started hedging on their plans to build another manned fighter jet—the NGAD project—indicating that this technology has already made an impression.

“I think there's been a huge groundswell over the past couple weeks around thinking about not just NGAD, but things like NGAS, the next-generation tanker, and then sort of the next-generation mobility aircraft and of saying, ‘Hey, if we're projecting out through these 20-year programs, and we are where we are today, we're going to be in a position in that period of time of truly being able to fly these things sort of without human crew’,” George said. 

Human pilots won’t become obsolete any time soon, George said, but the future is autonomous—and people aren’t fully ready for how quickly it’s going to happen. 

Autonomous systems will take some of the cognitive burden off of fighter pilots, Ryu said, so they can focus on other tasks—like managing drones. The Air Force is working on building collaborative combat aircraft, which envisions autonomous drones flying alongside fighters.

“That gives them an opportunity to manage their drones, manage the unmanned or uncrewed assets, right? So in other words, if I'm not busy flying my jet, if AI can do some of that stuff, maybe not everything, but some of this stuff, then I have time, I can cognitively manage, command and control multiple drones that [are] at my disposal to do the fight, further out in the hostile environment,” Ryu said. 

Ryu declined to comment on the CCA program, but noted that EpiSci is the prime for DARPA’s AIR program, which will develop AI software for “multi-ship, beyond-visual-range air-combat missions”—essentially creating AI for a team of aircraft. 

Asked about the timeline for this technology, Ryu said EpiSci’s autonomy will be deployed on aircraft and drones gradually, in “bits and pieces.” The F-16 that Secretary Kendall flew had to be modified to let the AI control the plane, but newer drones are being built to account for the company’s software from the start, he said.

“When it comes to drones that work together, I think we are looking at, in general, technology-wise, we're talking about about a year or two, a couple of years, that you'd be able to see very well-designed AI taking over human piloting,” Ryu said.