A startup is developing a full-size aircraft that will be capable of delivering large amounts of freight both quickly and cheaply
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Spotted: There are two main ways to move freight internationally – by air and by sea. While sea freight is 13 times less expensive than air freight, it is also 50 times slower. Aeronautics start-up Natilus hopes to change this dynamic by developing an autonomous cargo aircraft that can offer the speed of air freight at a cost closer to that of sea freight. If successful, the result could lead to a dramatic disruption of the freight industry.
Most delivery drones in use today have very small payloads – designed for ‘last-mile’ delivery of small parcels. The Natilus aircraft, in contrast, uses a wide, blended-wing geometry to drastically reduce drag. Its initial craft, the 3.8T, will be able to carry up to 3,855 kilogrammes over a distance of 1,667 kilometres (905 nautical miles) and is designed as a ‘feeder’ freighter, used to connect regional/rural locations with the larger supply chain. However, Natilus also has plans for much larger craft in the works, including a 130T ‘intercontinental’ design capable of flying long-haul distances of 9,467 kilometres (5,112 nautical miles).
The company claims the plane’s ‘pizza-slice profile’ not only increases its internal cargo volume, but also reduces CO2 per kilogrammes by 50 per cent over a conventional, tubular-shaped aircraft with the same proportions. The use of carbon-neutral bioethanol will also help lower emissions. Perhaps most importantly, the planes are designed to fly either completely autonomously, or using remote ‘fly-by-mouse’ autopilot wherever human pilot controls are required. Eliminating the pilot eliminates the need for cabin pressure, allowing more flexibility in design, greater reduction in drag and increased cargo volume.
Aleksey Matyushev, Natilus founder and CEO, suggests that the main business case for drones such as the 3.8T are locations where other delivery infrastructure is poor, pointing out that, “Asia and Africa have poor road infrastructure, so it might take days for a truck to make a trip where an aircraft can do it in a few hours. Similarly, if trying to transport cargo from Hong Kong to Denver, air freight offers a more direct path with less CO2 than using a container ship and rail.”
Once seen only in sci-fi, the race is now on to create autonomous drone aircraft, with a number of companies now crowded into the space. Innovations include plans for a worldwide network of rooftop flying taxi and cargo drone hubs, turnkey mini-airports for drones and autonomous, electric air taxis.
Written By: Lisa Magloff