TORONTO – Amid all the talk of digitalization, blockchain and cargo communities at this year’s Air Cargo Forum, the session that earned the biggest buzz this week was the “Unmanned Freight Aircraft” panel. Rather than the small quad-copter demonstration projects seen over the last few years, the manufacturers showcased here are working on prototypes for large, fixed-wing aircraft with payloads measured in tonnes, not kilograms. These may be the drones the industry is looking for.
The Wednesday session featured an update from Sanjeev Gadhia, founder and CEO of Kenya-based Astral Aviation, which has been working with several unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) manufacturers to fly cargo for various industries in East Africa.
In the last couple of months, he said, a Spanish company called Singular Aircraft has completed three successful test flights of the Flyox I drone at a NATO airbase in Norway. The vehicle, with a maximum payload of 2 tonnes, made autonomous takeoffs and landings on a runway of less than 500 meters, in both day and night. The test aircraft flew for a total of 260 kilometers, “with no technical issues and no crashes,” he added. Astral is now planning to run a pilot project with the Flyox I in Kenya in 2019, after which it is expected to operate commercially. A video of these tests can be seen below:
Astral’s emphasis has been to develop large cargo drones – roughly the size of Caravans or single-engine Cessnas – which Gadhia said are more cost-effective than quadcopters and provides flexibility, because many can land on short runways (or none) and some can land on water. “There is also a lesser requirement of flight crews and minimum stopovers with more direct flights,” he added.
The audience also heard updates from Alexsey Matyushev, CEO and co-founder of Natilus, which is performing prototype taxi tests on a 30-foot UAV in the San Francisco Bay area. See video below, left:
The Natilus prototype, which takes off and lands on water, currently has a payload capacity of 700 pounds, but it will eventually be scaled up to 2-ton, 60-ton and 120-ton commercial aircraft.
The unique characteristic of the Natilus design is the “blended wing body,” Matyushev said. “The single-deck layout expands to a rectangular section,” he explained. By using rectangular containers, the drone can fit 15 percent more cargo than a similarly sized freighter, and the fuselage itself also provides lift and decreases drag by 20 percent.
From Bulgaria, Svilen Rangelov, co-founder of Dronamics, discussed the progress being made on the company’s quarter-scale drone prototype, dubbed “The Black Swan,” which has a 350-kilogram payload and a range of 2,500 kilometers. A video of the Black Swan tests can be seen below:
Rangelov said he was encouraged that he was able to conduct his prototype tests in Europe, “which typically is more conservative, from a regulations standpoint.”
Unlike some of the other panelists, Rangelov said he doesn’t view Dronamics “as a manufacturer, per se,” because it is also planning to get into the “droneport” business, designing small-footprint landing hubs for UAVs that have minimal infrastructure and short, unpaved runways.
Finally, the audience heard from one of the newer entrants in the UAV market – the Sabrewing Aircraft Co. – which is creating an electric-gas-hybrid powered vehicle, using tilt-rotor technology to takeoff and land vertically, hover and fly forward as a fixed-wing aircraft. See the artist’s rendering of the largest of the company’s planned aircraft, the “Wyvern,” in the video below:
Ed de Reyes, CEO of Sabrewing, said the big difference with his company’s design is that no airport is needed at all to operate the aircraft, making it idea for operations in remote areas. “There are a lot of places that are like Alaska,” he said, “where only 17 percent of towns are served by road. In Africa, Asia, India – there are lots of isolated communities with little road access.”
U.S.-based Sabrewing, founded in 2016, is looking to produce three kinds of commercial cargo drones: the 800-pound-capacity Rhaegal; the 2,500-pound-capacity Draco; and the 4,400-pound-capacity Wyvern.
All models, de Reyes said, can “fly high and fast above the weather,” at roughly 10,000 to 23,000 feet, “and are almost impervious to ice.” He estimates that there will be a need for 3,000 of these regional-sized drones between now and 2030 – “a 35 to 40 percent market increase” – to serve the rural areas for which it is designed.
Flight testing for some Sabrewing models is scheduled to begin as early as June 2019.