Our Drones Will Blot Out the Sun

A drone partnership with the world’s largest retailer, an update on a crashed eVTOL, and the U.S. plan to build an army of drones and other autonomous systems—all that and more in this week’s Future of FLYING newsletter.

Hicks

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks reveals a new U.S. military strategy—more drones. [Courtesy: Air Force Technical Sergeant Jack Sanders]

Hello, and welcome to the Future of FLYING newsletter, our weekly look at the biggest stories in emerging aviation technology. From low-altitude drones to high-flying rockets at the edge of the atmosphere, we’ll take you on a tour of the modern flying world to help you make sense of it all.

Now for this week’s top story:

Department of Defense Wants More Drones—Lots More

(Courtesy: Air Force Technical Sergeant Jack Sanders)

What happened? U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, pictured above, unveiled the U.S. plan to produce “multiple thousands” of inexpensive, easily replaceable autonomous systems in a bid to keep pace with China’s military build up. The goal is to “outmatch” China by manufacturing droves of unmanned drones, ships, ground vehicles, and other technologies.

‘Small, smart, cheap, and many’: That’s how Hicks described the U.S. counterstrategy, which would seem to imply drones are very much on the menu. The systems will also be attritable in battle. Essentially, that means they can be lost, damaged, or shot down, but still be easily substituted through a combination of low-cost manufacturing and rapid deployment.

Hicks noted the private sector—including commercial, nontraditional, and traditional defense contractors—will have a large role to play in the program, which she coined the Replicator Initiative. Its prime objective will be to match China’s military might. But the systems will be rolled out across multiple domains.

Trouble to the east: U.S. defense officials are wary of China’s growing armed forces. Its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) boasts the largest Navy in the world, along with over 1 million ground force personnel and nearly 2,200 combat aircraft. Officials have called it the U.S.’s biggest “pacing challenge.”

Hicks made clear that although Replicator will greatly accelerate the U.S.’s drone production, the Department of Defense will still produce larger aircraft. The new systems will build on what’s already been deployed to comprehensively counter China and other rivals.

Quick quote: “Replicator is meant to help us overcome the [People’s Republic of China’s] biggest advantage, which is mass. More ships. More missiles. More people,” Hicks said.

My take: We don’t know yet what systems or aircraft are covered under Replicator. But the program stands to greatly ramp up U.S. military capabilities.

The new wave of drones should provide a low-cost alternative to manned systems that can be produced closer to the “tactical edge.” It’ll also ensure the U.S. is always ready for conflict. In Ukraine, forces lose around 10,000 drones every month, but an influx of ready-to-fly aircraft could take the sting out of that situation and others.

The drones could even be paired with other aircraft or with each other to create swarms. In the past 12 months, the DOD has proposed combining them with Next Generation Air Dominance fighters and revealed a concept for swarms of multiple different aircraft types. Thousands of cheaply made drones could become the pipeline for either initiative.

In Other News…

Walmart, Alphabet’s Wing Partner on Dallas Drone Delivery

(Courtesy: Wing)

What happened? Google is by far the largest search browser in the world. Its parent company, Alphabet, also happens to own one of the biggest drone delivery companies, Wing. Last week, Wing partnered with Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, to deliver eggs, fried chicken, ice cream, Advil, and more to around 60,000 homes in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs.

Try it yourself: If you live within 6 miles of the two Walmart Supercenters where the partners plan to launch, drone delivery will arrive in the coming months. Wing will let customers know whether they’re eligible when they create an account and enter their address in the Wing app. The first store is expected to launch in a few months, with another coming online by year’s end.

Deliveries are expected to arrive within 30 minutes and will be made between 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Customers can indicate where they want their drop off, whether it’s to their yard, driveway, front doorstep, or another location of their choosing. The new service will build on Wing and Walmart’s existing operations in Dallas (the latter currently flies there with DroneUp).

Vertical Aerospace Sheds Light on Recent Accident

(Courtesy: Vertical Aerospace)

What happened? In the wake of an accident earlier this month that brought down the company’s electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxi prototype, manufacturer Vertical Aerospace explained what went wrong. The company now expects to start crewed flight testing in early 2024—it was originally slated to begin later this year.

What happened? Vertical CEO Stephen Fitzpatrick and chief engineer David King told The Air Current the crash involved a faulty propeller, which caused a cascading impact to the system the eVTOL’s flight control computers and motors use to communicate. That depleted the power of two motors, causing the aircraft to tumble from about 30 feet in the air onto the runway surface.

Fitzpatrick and King explained the propeller won’t be an issue—the company already had a new one built before the accident and will use that design on future prototypes. The software issues, though, present a greater challenge. Vertical said it’s still investigating what went wrong, but King called the problem “a very difficult thing to analyze.”

And a Few More Headlines:

  • NASA Crew-7 astronauts arrived at the International Space Station on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endurance.
  • Aerial advertising startup Sustainable Skylines received FAA approval to begin replacing banner-tow airplanes with drones.
  • Avionics provider uAvionix completed the first beyond visual line of sight flights of a drone using C-Band radio for the FAA.
  • Space SPAC Mission Control Acquisition filed for an IPO and will target businesses serving the “global space economy.”
  • Archer Aviation will show off its Midnight eVTOL at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Aerospace Summit next month.

On the Horizon…

Last month, I highlighted the FAA’s updated UAS Fact Sheet, which asserts the agency’s preemption of state and local drone laws. This week it exercised that status.

The city of Jacksonville, Alabama had for years prohibited unmanned aircraft from flying over public parks or the city’s police station. But this week, it repealed the ordinance after the FAA informed city officials they weren’t allowed to enact it. The reversal could be a sign of things to come if the agency continues to follow its playbook.

Across the Atlantic, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) named Luc Tytgat, the former director of safety and strategy management, as acting executive director. Before joining EASA, Tytgat handled air transport and space domains for the European Commission. His appointment could shake up the agency’s plans for AAM and emerging aircraft.

Meanwhile, the EU-funded Flying Forward 2020 initiative wrapped up this week. The three-year project studied the viability of drone emergency response, surveillance, last-mile delivery, and air taxi services across five European cities. Its findings are still being evaluated, but the report could inform the development of regulatory frameworks for drones in the E.U.

Mark Your Calendars

Each week, I’ll be running through a list of upcoming industry events. Here are a few conferences to keep an eye on:

Tweet of the Week

Want to see your tweet here next week? Have comments or feedback? Share your thoughts on Twitter and tag me (@jack_daleo)! Or check out FLYING’s media accounts:

I want to hear your questions, comments, concerns, and criticisms about everything in the modern flying space, whether they’re about a new drone you just bought or the future of space exploration. Reach out to jack@flying.media or tweet me @jack_daleo with your thoughts.

Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter