Things are moving on the autonomous cargo aircraft scene. In the same week that MightyFly unveiled its second-generation eVTOL and Natilus announced that Ameriflight has agreed to buy 20 of its autonomous feeder cargo aircraft, news outlet Nikkei Asia reported on a hitherto unknown Chinese cargo drone start up, AirWhiteWhale, which has plans that could bring serious weight into the competition.
Ladies first. Let’s start with MightyFly – the first drone start-up to be founded by a woman back in OCT19 (CFG reported https://www.cargoforwarder.eu/2022/02/20/might-she-fly-looks-like-the-answer-is-yes/ ). It unveiled its second-generation eVTOL last week, the MightyFly Cento, and announced that it is now FAA authorized for long-range flight and plans to start testing its last-mile and middle-mile logistics service shortly. Classed as a hybrid, electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) aircraft, the MightyFly Cento has a cargo capacity of 45 kgs (100 lbs – hence the Cento in the name), a range of 965 km (600 miles), and can travel at speeds of up to 240 km/h (150 mph). From MightyFly Cento on paper to its pilot flight took just nine months, paid for by the $5.1 million seed funding received just under 2 years ago. The Cento takes up a space “that is less than two compact cars”, according to the release, which details its weight at just 161 kg (thanks to its carbon fiber airframe), and size at 4 m by 5 m. It is equipped with eight electric vertical lift fans, one forward propulsion propeller, and a 180 cm by 30 cm by 30 cm internal cargo bay which can hold up to 96 small USPS packages. “Cargo is loaded and unloaded by a conveyor belt that operates autonomously,” the release states, also revealing its USP: “because the Cento is equipped with a hybrid powertrain, it does not require recharging between flights. An internal combustion engine recharges the aircraft's battery while in the air, enabling it to perform multiple consecutive deliveries.”
Having been granted a Special Airworthiness Certificate and a Certificate of Authorization (COA) for long-range flights by the FAA, the MightyFly Cento’s hover and forward flight functionalities can now be tested at medium and high altitudes across an airspace of 230 square miles, and a height of up to 5,000 feet (up to). It has also been granted an SBIR award by the U.S. Air Force, which sees military potential in MightyFly’s development of long-range, hybrid propulsion drones.
Manal Habib, MightyFly CEO and co-founder, explains the reason behind San Franciso-based MightyFly: “The traditional hub-and-spoke distribution model doesn't serve everyone. We need to be able to adapt to various cargo volumes and expedited timing. Medical companies, just-in-time manufacturing, and retailers that now provide same-day delivery need a faster and more affordable way to get their goods and perishables to the final destination.”
Ameriflight’s $134 million Natilus order
Another Californian dream: With its latest purchase agreement bagged, Natilus, the American company developing “the world’s first autonomous aircraft for efficient and sustainability freight transport” (CFG reported: https://www.cargoforwarder.eu/2022/02/13/a-new-class-of-freight-aircraft/ ) now has more than 460 aircraft orders in its books to the value of $6.8 billion. Its newest business client is America’s largest Part 135 airline, with more than 200 destinations across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America in its network. Dallas-based cargo carrier, Ameriflight, which serves UPS as its largest customer in its overnight express feeder business model, is purchasing 20 Natilus Kona cargo aircraft for $ 134 million in a strategic move to be the first regional U.S. carrier to take air freight operations into the future, as Alan Rusinowitz, President and Chief Operating Officer of Ameriflight, confirms: “Through this strategic partnership, we are positioning Ameriflight to build the roadmap for the future in cargo operations and be the first regional operator for Natilus in the United States. Our goal is to grow our product and transform the way we do business through innovation and collaboration, and now through this new partnership with Natilus, Ameriflight will connect the world safely within a sustainable business model.” The Kona is the smallest of the three designs in the Natilus fleet. It is a 3.8-ton payload short-haul feeder UAV.
Efficient climate and pilot shortage solution
Aleksey Matyushev, Co-Founder and CEO of Natilus, states: “Innovation in design allows the Natilus fleet to carry more volume at lower costs, and the exploration of new sustainable fuels will lower carbon emissions,” referring to the carbon fiber, blended-wing-body design of its fleet of cargo aircraft, which can lower the cost of operations by 60% and halve carbon emission. The fleet is the perfect solution to serving new and emerging markets in remote areas, where larger aircraft do not have the runway capacity and/or infrastructure to land, ensuring the supply of medicines, food, and other important goods. “The Ameriflight agreement is a major move forward for the air cargo industry to strengthen the regional supply chain. Developing autonomous solutions that are purpose-built to address the needs of the air cargo market is one important step toward developing more robust long-term solutions. Autonomous technologies seek to utilize labor more efficiently by allowing a single pilot to control multiple aircraft, helping address the dire pilot shortage,” he concludes.
Meanwhile, over in Beijing
The first pilot flight, albeit with a prototype one-third of the actual size, already took place in OCT22 at Baotou Airport in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Talk is of the AirWhiteWhale, a cargo drone start-up which plans to develop and market its W5000 large drone. With a maximum take-off weight of 10.8 tons, it will be capable of carrying a maximum payload of 5 tons over a distance of around 1,200 km. The cargo hold has a volume of 65 m³, and loading of standard cargo ULDs is done via a convenient rear hatch.
Marketing itself as “the only commercial aircraft design team in China domestic UAV industry,” AirWhiteWhale is the brainchild of CEO, Hu Zhendong, a graduate from Beihang University with a Ph.D. in aircraft design. He founded the company in 2021, with his three other board members who all have aviation experience, having worked in companies such as Airbus, COMAC, and General Electric. AirWhiteWhale’s mission is to “shorten world distance” and its vision is to “provide customers with efficient and intelligent unmanned air transportation solutions.” The Beijing-based start-up has a branch office for an R&D center in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, and also plans to establish a manufacturing and testing site in Changzhou, Jiangsu province. It plans to raise between 100 million yuan and 150 million yuan ($14.7 million and $22.1 million), to fund design, research and development, workforce expansion, product trials and component testing. Rather than remodeling existing aircraft, AirWhiteWhale will design its fleet from scratch according to customer needs.
The e-commerce solution
Hu Zhendong sees the need and potential for large cargo drones in the ecommerce supply chain market as it expands to smaller regions. Cost-effective, efficient solutions that match a cargo drone’s qualities are required. The Chinese government has already provided operating standards for fixed-wing, large cargo drones, in preparation. He feels the time and opportunity is right for AirWhiteWhale’s cargo drone solutions: “We have the advantage of having extensive experience in aircraft design and supply chain management. China's airline industrial chain is almost complete and can provide the fundamentals for the commercialization of large cargo drones. China has the most advanced technologies in areas such as 5G, satellite positioning system, artificial intelligence and self-driving. And that will be a big help for our research and development."
AirWhiteWhale will be serving the domestic market. How quickly will an air cargo drone of that size be able to operate in other parts of the world?
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