A Richmond, CA-based cargo drone startup, Natilus, is looking to change the way that air freight companies deliver their goods. Founded in 2014, the company’s initial project is a seaplane concept which could eventually transport over 100 tons of cargo across the Pacific Ocean, all without an on-board pilot.
The process of expanding their cargo drone fleet will begin with the testing of a 2,200-pound prototype with an approximate 30-foot wingspan, set to depart from and land in San Francisco Bay. While those tests were initially set for late 2017, the new trial estimate is set for 2018. If Natilus can pass the many hurdles put forth by the Federal Aviation Administration, their vision for the future of air cargo transport is transformative.
The appeal of Natilus’ projected jumbo drone is obvious. Their website boasts that their single-engine, unmanned cargo drone will operate 17 times faster than a standard cargo ship and at half the cost of a Boeing 747. While a 12,000-pound Natilus cargo drone would require approximately 19 additional hours to cover the same distance as the Boeing, many transporters will vie for the reduced cost the cargo drone will offer.
Founders Aleksey Matyushev, Anatoly Starikov, and LZ Zhang ironically stumbled upon the idea for Natilus as they were exploring other potential options within the tech sphere.
“We were doing engineering in the U.S. and manufacturing out of Asia,” Matyushev told Freight Waves,“and we always needed products that had to be shipped faster than what the ships provided. But then, the cost of air freight was way too expensive, with us giving away all our margins on the product we were trying to sell. For two years we were thinking about this problem, and we realized that building a drone could finally solve this issue.”
One reason for optimism is the reality that most cargo planes today were once passenger planes that have merely been adapted for cargo. With a design in mind for a propeller-driven cargo drone that is suited for volume as opposed to the current weight-centric models, Natilus’ aircrafts will be completely unlike the current industry standard.
Natilus is still conducting simulations which help refine drag and performance models while they continue to hammer down operating costs. Additionally, FAA regulations currently prevent the use of autonomous aircrafts, despite Natilus’ models being equipped to function as such. So, in the meantime, the jumbo drones would be flown via human pilot in the manner that a military drone is. Even with final production remaining distant, the growth of the e-commerce retail market has the founders confident that they are onto a concept that could become a linchpin in the air freight industry by 2020.