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article imageCutting air freight expenses in half through drone technology

By Karen Graham     Dec 29, 2017 in Technology
Richmond - A U.S. startup is testing a new seaplane concept—one that could evolve into huge cargo drones that fly 109 metric tons of freight across the ocean, touchdown over water and deliver freight worldwide for half the price of piloted aircraft.
Richmond, California-based startup, Natilus is working on providing a solution to transporting freight many times faster than when it is shipped across the ocean, but at half the price of regular air freight.
Founded in April 2016 by Aleksey Matyushev, Anatoly Starikov, and LZ Zhang, the origin of the cargo drone came about while the guys were working on another successful Kickstarter campaign. They were faced with persistent delays in getting shipments from overseas in a timely manner.
Matyushev told Freight Waves, “We were doing engineering in the U.S. and manufacturing out of Asia,” he explains, “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.”
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Natilus has several issues to overcome if they are to be successful. One is the size of the drone. In December, Natilus planned to test the water-taxiing capabilities of a small prototype drone with a 9-meter (30-feet) wingspan in San Francisco Bay. Depending on the success of this testing, they could get FAA approval for flight tests in 2018.
"The first flight will follow the traditional general aviation flight-testing approach, which includes a water takeoff and a climb out to about 200 feet, followed by a cruise, descent, and landing,” says Matyushev.
Natilus envisions large semi-autonomous drones capable of carrying huge amounts of cargo. Right now, the cargo industry is under a weight-centric approach to aircraft, differing in a more volume centric approach that is needed. And this is what Natilus is hoping the industry will gravitate towards.
“We need a lot more volume in an aircraft than ever before, whereas vehicles right now are passenger vehicles adapted for freight, and designed with a weight-centric approach,” adds Matyushev.
Another issue, but in Natilus's favor is that with seaplane drones, many of the safety and air traffic control issues are avoided because they don't fly over land. Sanjiv Singh, a robotics researcher at Carnegie Mellon University and CEO of Near Earth Autonomy says, “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."
However, Singh and other experts are still drawn back to the size issue with cargo drones, especially when it comes to competing with piloted aircraft and cargo cost. “Unmanned cargo drones have an efficiency advantage when they are small,” says Hans Heerkens, chairman of the Platform for Unmanned Cargo Aircraft, an international organization investigating the technology’s possibilities. “I don’t see so much of the efficiency advantage when they are large.”
It will be interesting to see how the test flights go this year, and cargo drones could very well have a place in the future.
More about Natilus drones, cargo drone, shipping rates, international freight, Technology
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