Just 24 hours before the final Boeing 747 nose-door freighter ceremoniously left its production hangar, a small, six-year-old autonomous electric aircraft start-up, Oakland, California-based, Pyka, unveiled its own nose-door cargo plane: the Pelican Cargo. Good to see that there is continuity in nose-door loading aircraft production, albeit on a slightly different size scale.
Size, however, is not the point here, even if it is Pyka’s largest autonomous electric aircraft to date. The point – and a highly promising, future-oriented one at that – is that the Pelican
Cargo is the first zero-emission commercial cargo UAS (unmanned aircraft system) of its kind. “We are grateful to all who have helped make this game-changing product come to life and who have
followed Pyka along the way. #zeroemission #aircargo is no longer just a vision for the future!” is the accompanying text on the Pyka’s LinkedIn announcement post.
World's Largest Zero Emissions Autonomous Electric Cargo Airplane
The aircraft which “features unprecedented payload and range capabilities”, boasts a range of up to 200 miles/320 km, at a maximum altitude of 8,000 feet. Equipped with four electric motors generating a combined 100kW, it can carry a maximum payload of 400 lbs/181 kgs (cargo volume: 1.87 m³), at a cruise speed of 111-148 km/h. Its wing-span measures 11.5 m, length 6.1 m, and height 2.1 m, and it has four fixed pitch propellers: two in front of the wing, and two behind it. The 50-kWh lithium-ion battery can either be charged on the ground, or swapped, if no charging stations are available. Michael Norcia, Pyka’s Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, stated: “Pelican Cargo will have a significant positive impact on people's lives. We designed this plane to eliminate C02 emissions from the logistics chain, while offering a significant speed advantage over ground transportation and operating costs at a fraction of conventional air transportation.”
From crop-sprayer to cargo player
When Pyka was founded back in FEB17, cargo was not the plan. The company originally set out to design autonomous electric crop-spraying aircraft for agriculture. As with so many start-ups, the story begins in a garage – this time, Co-Founder Norcia’s parents’ garage. The development of its first “Big Bird” soon takes the team outside to the parents’ backyard, as it literally grows too big for the garage. Then, work begins on an improved model, the “Egret”, which is tested in collaboration with the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority in mid-2019, and becomes the first-ever human-scale autonomous electric aircraft certified for commercial work. As seed-funding grows, the company comes up with its Pelican model. The Pelican Spray goes into production in OCT20, and includes Pyka proprietary technology: autonomous flight control software, flight computer, batteries, electric propulsion system, and carbon fiber composite airframes. The company has scored a number of firsts through its aircrafts’ deployment as a crop duster/sprayer in various countries. For example, in Costa Rica, in JUL21, it became the first autonomous fixed wing aerial application on a banana crop in human history, and the following year, in OCT22, also in Costa Rica, it secured the world's first approval for autonomous night spray operations.
Pop-in a sliding cargo tray, and Pelican Cargo is born
Those achievements raised not more funding, this time USD 37 million in a Series A raise in APR22, but also proactive interest from cargo players looking for a feasible drone solution. As Norcia declared over on LinkedIn last week: “From a napkin sketch to first flight in under 12 months 🚀🚀🚀. I think the only thing more glorious than the aircraft is the team that built it — congratulations to everyone at Pyka!!!”, Much of what makes up the Pelican Spray (in fact around 90%, according to Norcia), has been incorporated in Pyka’s cargo model. The difference lies within Pelican Cargo’s nose-loading door, which incorporates a sliding cargo tray. That makes loading fast and simple, since the objects can be preloaded on a cargo sled and slid in at the aircraft, avoiding the need for other ground equipment. With such convenience and quick loading and unloading, the model lends itself perfectly for deployment in express logistics networks, particularly those connecting and serving remote rural communities. Requiring just a 500-600-foot runway for take-off or landing, the Pelican Cargo is highly versatile in that it can land on pavement, grass, dirt, or gravel.
Skyports Drone Services is a launch customer
The Pelican Cargo is currently undergoing rigorous testing at Pyka's flight test facility in Northern California. Commercial operation (which will be carried out on a leasing basis), is due to begin in the second half of this year. Pyka has already secured more than 80 pre-commitment orders and options for its Pelican Cargo from three launch customers across North America and Europe. One of those is UK-based Skyports Drone Services, who plan on using what they term “Pyka’s best-in-class heavy payload UAV”, to transport cargo for humanitarian aid groups, logistics and delivery companies, as well as healthcare and medical customers, in its Open Skies Cornwall project.
Alex Brown, Director of Skyports Drone Services: “We operate a carefully selected fleet of UAS platforms across our markets, each of which has been chosen due to its operational capabilities and unrivalled performance. Having a fully electric, autonomous, heavy-lift cargo drone in our fleet is a real gamechanger. To date, we’ve been focused on operations with smaller, high value payloads. The introduction of the Pelican Cargo brings new capabilities and means we can now fly significant volumes of cargo long distances, connecting communities in remote areas and providing a regular, robust form of transport in and out of hard-to-reach areas. Importantly, we’re doing this now – this isn’t future gazing, it’s a ready-to-go service.”
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