From Da Vinci’s first flying machine drawings in the 1480s, Nicolas Woyevodsky’s initial blended wing endeavors in the 1920s, to the rapid developments in drone and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles today, the desire to fly has always been strong, yet for the past three-quarters of a century, the way we do it commercially has pretty much remained the same. Until now? “Natilus is reinventing the 75-year-old status quo of freight transportation through innovation and advanced technologies, to make air freight costs competitive to cargo shipping and dramatically improve delivery times,” the company proclaims as its vision.
Natilus is an aircraft company with a difference, and that difference was recently rewarded with advance purchase commitments of more than USD 6 billion for the delivery of 440+ aircraft in
pre-orders. Yet, who or what is Natilus exactly?
Raise the volume, drop the costs
Co-founded in 2016 by Aleksey Matyushev and Anatoly Starikov, two San Francisco Bay Area-based aircraft design engineers who previously worked at Piper Aircraft together, Natilus’ mission is to disrupt and innovate “the design of freight transport aircraft to increase cargo volume by 60%, while cutting costs by 60%, and lowering carbon emissions by half.” Talk is of a family of large, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), completely different in aerodynamic design to what is on the freighter market today, that will “make air freight costs competitive to cargo shipping and dramatically improve delivery times.” And the planes, themselves, will also cost just a fraction of what similar conventional aircraft cost. CEO, Aleksey Matyushev quotes USD 7 million per smallest aircraft in the family, compared to USD 26 million for similar-sized, established planes.
Freighter first, not freighter later
In “The Eccentric CEO” podcast, hosted by Aman Y. Agarwal mid-2021, Aleksey Matyushev explains that aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus, follow a “freighter later” approach to their aircraft design. First off, a great deal of money is spent on developing a perfect passenger version, and once completed and accepted, they then go about designing a freighter version: basically, ripping out the seats and making a few other adjustments to end up with a “more rugged version of the passenger plane”, he explains.
Natilus is solely cargo-plane focused, he underlines. Concentrating only on the smaller, cargo niche of the aviation business, allows the company to “rethink what a freighter needs to look like, and forget about passengers.”
On blended wing…
This has resulted in a lighter-weighted, blended wing design which enables the aircraft to fit in double the amount of cargo space than its similar-size conventional freighter peers, thus allowing for much more cargo revenue per flight. So, despite the same amount of fuel being used, the lighter, autonomous aircraft offering much more cargo volume (and the expectation is that most of the cargo will continue to be volume freight rather than dense weight cargo), along with the reduction in pilot costs, will greatly reduce the required cash operating costs.
Though people have toyed with blended wing designs for a while, they do not make for great passenger aircraft, he explains, stating problems in adequately pressurizing the cabin, passengers being unable to get out in the stipulated 90 seconds in case of an emergency, and passengers furthest away from the center of gravity of the plane experiencing uncomfortable g-force at times. What will happen with Airbus’ passenger blended wing design, remains to be seen. However, the design “makes sense” for a freighter, he is convinced, as “you don’t have to care about g-force [sic] and sometimes cabin pressure is not required.” On the other hand, it offers a positive, 20% reduction in drag, and 50% more cargo volume for the same weight of aircraft.
Choose the right business model
Natilus’ remotely controlled drone aircraft business model is also disruptive – and that can be attributed to the size of the aircraft planned, the smallest of which will have an 8-ton payload. “There are two business models in the world of cargo drone,” he explains. Manufacturers of smaller drones, such as Zipline, not only design and build their drones, but they also operate their own aircraft on behalf of large organizations, governments, and typically, freight forwarders. Builders of larger aircraft, such as Boeing and Airbus, design, build, and then sell aircraft. They do not operate them [with the exception, since then, of Airbus entering the cargo business with its Belugas]. Designing aircraft and running airlines are two very different business operations, and Natilus, like Boeing, has opted to design and build its aircraft from scratch and then sell them to major airlines, cargo airlines, and integrators.
Size is everything
When starting an airplane company, it is very important to decide on the size of aircraft, Matyushev emphasized, pointing out that it is much easier to raise capital for smaller RC drones and that is why so many drone companies start there – yet there are something in the region of 500 drone companies out there now, and it is difficult to differentiate between them. In the +10t category, on the other hand, Natilus is in a class of its own.
The Natilus aircraft family is planned to consist of four aircraft versions: an 8-ton payload short-haul feeder UAV similar to a Cessna Caravan in size, which can be deployed for feeder operations lasting on average 2-2.5 hours, taking smaller, palletized cargo; a 60-ton payload medium/long range UAV similar to a B767, for domestic flights, and then a couple of long-range “big gorilla” UAVs with 100-ton and 130-ton payloads, respectively. However, the challenge until recently, with starting big, given that Natilus estimates needing USD 100 million to get a prototype in the air “from pencil [design] to certification,” was finding investors willing to part with their money. Often the response was “build first and then we’ll buy” – a chicken/egg dilemma.
Helping to fix the current supply chain problems
Those days are over, it seems. On 09FEB22, Natilus announced that it had received USD 6 billion in advance purchase commitments from Volatus Aerospace, Flexport, Astral Aviation, Aurora International, and Dymond, among others for order totaling over 440 aircraft. “Last week, Flexport completed a $900 million investment round and has signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) for two 100T Natilus aircraft, with an option for a third,” the press release stated. Speaking for Volatus, its Executive VP, Luc Masse, explained: “We are already an experienced commercial air carrier with operating authorities and licenses facilitating cargo delivery using both piloted aircraft and drones. We believe the planned addition of these large autonomous aircraft will allow us to develop important airline partnerships within the air cargo industry.”
The supply chain savior in spe
Aleksey Matyushev was quoted as saying: “Today, there are only two ways to move cargo internationally: by air and by sea. The difference between the cost and time of these two modes of transportation is dramatic. Sea freight is currently 13 times less expensive than air freight; but 50 times slower in delivery. Natilus intends to revolutionize the transport industry by providing the timeliness of air freight at an affordable cost reduction of 60%, making air cargo transportation substantially more competitive,” while over on LinkedIn, the company jubilantly declared: “With over $6 billion and 440+ aircraft in pre-orders, #Natilus products will help fix the current supply chain.”
Certainly, the current sea freight challenges and the ongoing air cargo capacity shortages are helping to add wind to Natilus’ sails.
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