A start-up in the San Francisco bay area is aiming to shake up the way cargo is delivered with drones. Natilus, Inc. is building a 30 foot drone cargo plane prototype that they hope to get airborne later this year.
Natilus aims at creating drones as big as 140-feet that are capable of carrying over 200,000 pounds of cargo at half the cost of current jet cargo planes. The sturdy carbon fiber drone is designed to take off from water and also land in water before taxiing to a dock to unload its cargo. This eliminates the need for ground-based infrastructure like large landing strips.
But how the drone really saves money is its ability to fly for longer times at slower speeds than any commercially available jet. Because of factors like pilot fatigue, normal cargo planes travel at higher speeds and in the process burn more fuel, making the trip faster, but also much more expensive. Because the Natilus drones will be autonomous, this is not a concern. The company uses the following cost comparison to get an idea of how this new drone could change the way cargo is transported.
Time and cost of shipping 200,000 pounds of cargo by:
The prototype of the Natilus drone is not yet built, but if this start-up can get things right they have the possibility of changing the way cargo is transported. Natilus plans on flying cargo drones between California and Hawaii by 2019.
The future of drones is autonomous flight. While the technology to make autonomous flight a reality is almost there, the willingness of many aviation authorities has not advanced as quickly.
However, authorities are starting to adjust. While the FAA still prohibits beyond-line-of-sight flying (something which is key to autonomous flight), it has granted waivers to companies like PrecisionHawk for such operations. This week two important development also happened overseas.
In Switzerland the American company Matternet successfully delivered laboratory samples between two hospitals via autonomous drones. Matternet was given permission to test autonomous flight by the Swiss Aviation Authority with plans by Swiss authorities to make such deliveries more common place by next year. Matternet’s M2 drone which was used for this test is, “Designed to operate around people and infrastructure within urban, suburban and industrial environments.”
Then in Israel, home-grown Israeli company Airobotics, was authorized by the country’s Civil Aviation Authority to fly drones without a pilot. Airobotic’s fully automated Optimus drone has its own little drone house. It self deploys, self lands and can autonomously do tasks like monitoring a facility, which makes it ideal for industrial applications.
Airobotics Optimus system is already in use and the company is now eyeing moving into helping with traffic analysis and emergency response using autonomous drones.
At the CES Las Vegas semiconductor and telecommunications company Qualcomm introduced its new Snapdragon Flight Drone Platform that allows a drone to autonomously create flight paths that recognize and avoid obstacles with real time machine learning.
At CES, Qualcomm’s set resembled a cluttered warehouse to demonstrate the abilities of its new platform. It is important to note that Qualcomm’s platform does not need GPS to operate, which make it ideal for indoor flying where GPS can be unreliable.
The onboard navigation processor weighs less than a AAA battery and allows the drone to fly completely autonomously without any off-board computing.
Pretty cool stuff that reminds the team at Drone Dossier of research being done by MIT students back in November of 2015.