Autonomy & AI

Merlin To Acquire EpiSci In Hookup Of AI Pilot Startups To Offer Complete Solution – June 13

Merlin on Thursday said it has agreed to acquire fellow startup EpiSci in a deal that would combine complementary autonomous capabilities to offer a full-stack solution for artificial intelligence-piloted military aircraft.

Merlin said the acquisition would position it at the front of the autonomous aviation industry. Shield AI is another competitor in this space.

Merlin has focused its autonomy software on “98 percent of flying,” which is the aviate, navigate, and communicate, which essentially is how a plane flies, lands, and interacts with air traffic control, Matt George, the company’s CEO, told Defense Daily during a virtual interview. EpiSci’s tactical AI autonomy brings the dogfighting, swarming, and the “critical sort of reinforcement learning,” he said.

The acquisition will create an end-to-end AI pilot solution, George said.

“So, through this sort of unique combination this is truly an industry first, nobody else has this combination,” he said. “No one. So, by being able to go do that, we’re able to go offer a really unique solution to whatever the next 100 years of aviation starts to look like.”

Terms of the deal, which is expected to close within 90 days, were not disclosed. Merlin has about 130 employees and EpiSci about 60.

Both EpiSci’s autonomy pilot and Merlin’s software have flown on various platforms, including the Air Force’s X-62A Variable In-Flight Simulation Test Aircraft, a modified F-16 that recently flew Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and a safety pilot for an autonomous flight from Edwards AFB, Calif. Shield AI and PhysicsAI also flew their AI pilot algorithms on the X-62.

EpiSci has said their software on flight with Kendall “demonstrated the longest single engagement and performed the only high-aspect, unscripted engagement.” It also said that based on fighter pilot feedback, that in addition to live-flight demonstrations, its agents were assessed as the “most trustable” within visual range combat autonomy.

Merlin and EpiSci combined have had their autonomy software on more than 23 unique platforms to also include the Cessna Caravan, F-16, KC-135 aerial refueling tanker, unmanned surface vessels, and small unmanned aircraft systems.

“By merging Merlin, we are choosing to deliver our TacticalAI autonomy software suite to the marketplace at significantly accelerated timelines and with greater impact,” Bo Ryu, founder and CEO of EpiSci, said in a statement. Once the transaction closes, Ryu will continue to run EpiSci.

This week, Boston-based Merlin received a $105 million contract from U.S. Special Operations Command to provide automation to reduce aircrew workload on C-130J aircraft. For this effort, Merlin will phase in its software aboard the C-130J with human in the flight deck as a monitor, George said.

This will allow the aircraft to operate with reduced crew, an important consideration given the shortage of Air Force pilots, he said.

EpiSci, which is based in Poway, Calif., this week made two announcements related to its AI pilot work for the Defense Department. On Wednesday, the company said it and teammate PhysicsAI received a $6 million, 18-month contract to develop tactical AI algorithms for teams of aircraft operating beyond visual range for air combat missions under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Artificial Intelligence Reinforcement program.

The company also received a follow-on contract from the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific to continue developing domain and vehicle-agnostic mission autonomy applications under Project Overwatch. In the last six months, EpiSci’s autonomy software has been integrated and operated on 12 uncrewed airborne and maritime platform types, the Ryu said.

George said that the acquisition will also allow Merlin to bring end-to-end AI pilot solutions to commercial aircraft too and build on aircraft data obtained through manned flights. “Autonomy is great until something unexpected happens or the script ends,” so the software can benefit from the creative experiences of human pilots as they cope with different crises and emergencies, he said.

No financial advisers were used on the deal, George said.

A version of this story originally appeared in affiliate publication Defense Daily.

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