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.
A new bill is being considered in Connecticut that would allow police in that state to arm drones with deadly weapons. If passed, Connecticut would be the first state to allow drones to be armed with deadly weapons. (North Dakota has allowed police to use drones armed with “less than lethal” weapons since 2015) This proposed law was picked up by numerous news sources and is getting a lot of attention on social media.
Some are worried that this could be a turning point that starts to fill American skies with armed police drones. Drone Dossier understands that this law could set a important precedent for use of armed drones but it may be too early to accurately know the potential impact of this bill. For example, the bill could fail and set an example for states not to arm drones. Also, the bill does not explain how the drones will be armed, or what kind of drones will be used. Most of the drones that police departments around the country are acquiring are commercially available drones that are not designed to be weaponized.
If passed, it appears Connecticut is planning only a minor role for weaponized drones. State Senator John Kissel said, “Obviously this is for very limited circumstances. We can certainly envision some incident on some campus or someplace where someone is a rogue shooter or someone was kidnapped and you try to blow out a tire.”
The Australian Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now using drones to clean up the environment. In particular, they are aiming at surveying landfills to see if their operations are environmentally safe. The idea appears to be working as EPA authorities in the State of Victoria recently used a drone to find out a landfill was operating in breach of its license.
According to the report, drone surveillance of a B.T.Q. Group landfill found “extensive areas of exposed waste”, even though the group’s license requires them to put at least 30 cm of soil on exposed soil every day. Based on the drone-collected evidence, the Australian EPA fined the landfill 7,000 Australian dollars.
Australian authorities aren’t the only ones using drones to enforce laws and regulations. Police in the UAE city of Ajman use drones to catch traffic violators and monitor the structural integrity of roads. The drones are equipped with infrared sensors and cameras capable of reading license plates from the air. From March to December of 2016, drones recorded over 2,000 violations in the roads around Ajman. The police say that the use of drones has helped to clear up traffic problems in the city.
Police in the Indian city of Pun are also doing the same thing. Over one week in August, 2016, Pun police used live drone footage to catch and fine 15 traffic violators on the Pun to Mumbai expressway.
The Middle East is a laboratory for asymmetric drone warfare. Iran-backed Houthi Rebels in Yemen recently used a drone boat to damage a Saudi frigate. An American ally (mostly like Israel or Saudi Arabia) used a multi-million dollar Patriot missile to shoot down a cheap drone. ISIS terrorists are turning regularly available consumer drones into bombers to attack Iraqi and Kurdish forces that are trying to push the out of Mosul. In all three of these cases, an enemy that had little or no conventional capability in the sea or air, used drones to asymmetrically attack in ways their opponents weren’t ready for.
But it’s the recent efforts of Houthi Rebels in Yeman that are most chilling because it appears they are attempting to use drones for a larger strategic purpose—to suppress the ability of Saudi and UAE Patriot missile batteries.
The Rebel’s Qasef-1 drone (mostly likely from Iran) has the ability to lock unto a particular radio emission and then slam into whatever is producing the emission and destroy it. If the Houthi Rebels can get enough of the Qaesef-1 drones they could attack Saudi and UAE Patriot missile batteries or force them expend all their missiles. If successful, this could open a door in air defenses that the Houthi Rebels could use to launch ballistic missiles at either Saudi Arabia or the UAE.
So when you read about a drone being shot down by a Patriot missile, look beyond the headline to see the significance—drones allow small, technologically inferior forces the ability to make a lot of havoc. Now, everyone has to adapt to this new threat. And just like asymmetric drone warfare, the Middle East is the laboratory for solutions against this threat.
Westeros has another invasion to worry about…an invasions of drones! According to Liam Cunningham, the actor who plays Davos Seaworth, drones flew over the Game of Thrones set in Spain multiple times. Video from those flights was supposedly steamed onto the internet. The actor wasn’t happy about these incidents, referring to the invading drone pilots as “low-lifers”.
Maybe the Game of Thrones crew should get medieval on these drones, but remember, Phantom-type drones are quite resistant.
The last few months European aircraft manufacturer Airbus has been in the news a lot, not because of planes, but because of its recent moves in the drone industry.
In early March, Airbus announced that it’s working on a car-drone hybrid called Pop.Up with its partner Italdesign. The drone can operate on land or in the air thanks to a modular three part design. A passenger capsule can lock into a car chassis or lock into a large quadcopter to fly through the air. The Pop.Up is designed to be controlled by AI and the idea is of it to be summoned for use via a mobile app. The obvious limiting factor is that the Pop.Up cannot just take off or land anywhere it wants because its car chassis is left behind when it flies.
Airbus is also heavily invested in Singapore’s Skyways project which seeks to safely integrate drones into Singaporean airspace. Additionally, the aircraft-maker signed an agreement with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to test a drone delivery service at the National University of Singapore sometime in the middle of this year.
In the US, Airbus Ventures was part of the new round of funding for drone software startup company AirMap. The Santa Monica-based company has an app that makes it easy for drone pilots to check for flight restrictions and even map their flight info to share with others. As part of their funding agreement, Airbus will be involved in AirMap’s business strategy and will help it build relationships with airports and regulators the world over.
The team here at Drone Dossier wants to believe that this is part of a well thought out plan by Airbus, but in some ways it seems they are throwing out as many ideas that they can and hoping that one sticks.