John Chisolm is part of a consortium that is trying to develop an unmanned aircraft company in Nelson, which could fly purely using artificial intelligence. Photo: Charles Anderson.

No pilots, no problem

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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.

Apollo expects to begin initial survey flights within the next three months.