Seaplane Drones to Deliver Freight

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After billionaire Howard Hughes first attempt to test and fly a transport seaplane, a US startup takes up the challenge of building one.

Now, more than 70 years later, a U.S. startup, Natilus, is testing a new seaplane concept which could possibly carry 109 metric tons of freight across the Pacific, and touch down autonomously over water, and unload at ports around the world.

Who’s Natilus?

The startup Natilus was founded in 2014 with a dream of building large cargo drones to handle international freight at half the price of a piloted aircraft, at the same time much faster than ships.

To march forward Natilus in December tested the water-taxiing capabilities of a small prototype drone with a 9-meter wingspan in San Francisco Bay. This test was supervised by the Federal Aviation Administration, who sets the stage for flight tests in 2018.

This initial flight test as described by Aleksey Matyushev, CEO and Co-founder of Natilus, is the first test which will follow the traditional general aviation flight-testing approach. It includes a water takeoff and a climb out to about 200 feet, followed by a cruise, descent, and landing.

Why is it so important?

These early remote-controlled flight tests could lead to semi-autonomous and then fully autonomous flights enabling the drone to autopilot its path and navigates over a route of waypoints set by a human controller.

By removing human pilots, Natilus wants to create a streamlined aircraft with just a single engine and more room for jet fuel or cargo. “So the drone is cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate because you burn less fuel, and cheaper to maintain,” says Francois Chopard, CEO and founder of Starburst Ventures, a company that helps aerospace startups raise seed funding.

Seaplane drones could avoid many of the safety and air traffic control concerns of drones flying over land, says Sanjiv Singh, a robotics researcher at Carnegie Mellon University and CEO of Near Earth Autonomy, a startup focused on intelligent flight systems. “If I have to ditch my containers over the ocean, it’s not the worst thing in the world, because people don’t die and everything is insured,” Singh says.

Who does Natilus target?

Natilus hopes to sell its drones to delivery and logistics companies such as Atlas Air (an Amazon partner), UPS, and DHL in a bid to disrupt the US $15.5 trillion global freight market. The sweet spot in terms of freight could include pricey goods that consumers want quickly, Chopard explains.

Still, Heerkens points to a potential market for cargo drones in servicing midsize cities in regions such as China and Africa that lack major airport infrastructure but want to ship goods to international markets. Whether flying over land or sea, Natilus drones could change the way goods are shipped around the world—if they can pass their flight tests.

Whom does Natilus compete with?

Similar cargo drones the size of aircraft have yet to take off in a serious way around the world. The U.S. Marine Corps previously tested a K-Max helicopter modified to become a drone capable of delivering several tons of supplies to troops in Afghanistan. More recently, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences transformed a light aircraft into an experimental AT200 drone that can carry more than 1.5 metric tons of cargo.

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Source: IEEE Spectrum

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