Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on FreightWaves.com.
A large, regional feeder airline for UPS and other overnight express carriers last week tentatively committed to buy 20 remote-controlled cargo planes, with a novel design, for middle-mile deliveries.
Ameriflight, which flies 156 small turboprop aircraft daily to more than 200 destinations in the U.S. and the Caribbean, signed a letter of intent with San Diego-based Natilus for 20 Kona feeder aircraft valued at $134 million, the companies announced.
Natilus is developing a family of pilotless aircraft it claims will increase cargo volume by 60 percent and cut carbon emissions in half, thereby making air shipments more affordable. The efficiency gains are possible because of carbon-fiber composite airframes and a blended-wing body—essentially a uniframe in which sections meld together—that creates more usable volume and better aerodynamics than a traditional airliner.
The absence of pilots also leaves more room for cargo.
The Kona is a short-haul feeder aircraft with a maximum payload of 4.7 tons and 900-mile range designed to carry the equivalent of seven LD3-45 small shipping containers. It is powered by two rear propeller engines. Other variants are a medium-haul jet with a 73-ton capacity, similar to a Boeing 767, and a long-range unmanned vehicle with a 121-ton payload.
The triangular blended wing-body configuration is a departure from tube-and-wing aircraft, which are loaded in a linear fashion. By rotating the cargo to 45 degrees, the diamond configuration maximizes space in the aircraft for more loading positions, a highly desirable quality in an e-commerce era when light boxes fill up planes before the takeoff weight limit is reached. Natilus aircraft will be smaller in size than their legacy counterparts, with more volume, according to the company.
Traditional fuselage cross sections are optimized for passengers, with a circular design to aid cabin pressurization. But cargo naturally moves best in rectangular boxes or pallets. Fitting rectangular pallets in a circular fuselage section leaves plenty of empty space. A blended-wing body configuration allows for a single rectangular cross section and full utilization of the available volume.
Collins Aerospace will provide the cargo loading system.
Co-founder and CEO Aleksey Matyushev has described the blended-wing Natilus concept as an attempt to combine the timeliness of airfreight with significant cost reductions that bring shipping to the point of being a commodity—as it is in ocean freight.
“We missed the mark when we started Natilus. We thought what people wanted was autonomy. Talking to our customers, what they really were interested in was a more volume-centric aircraft with autonomy more as a carrot, or the next evolution,” he said in an interview on Think Flight, a YouTube channel.
One of Natilus’ advisers is Ram Menen, who is famous in the air cargo industry for building Emirates’ cargo division into one of the largest cargo carriers in the world and helping found The International Air Cargo Association.
In a Q&A on the company’s website, he said Natilus’ lower operating cost per freight-ton-kilometer will be a big advantage for cargo operators.
“Since Natilus will have large cargo doors and blended wing body design , it will be ideal for long and large/heavy cargo and will be a good replacement for the Boeing 747 freighter. The volumetric capacity of all the variants are very e-commerce friendly and ideal for low density cargo,” he added.
Natilus management envisions the Kona freighter as ideal for reaching outlying regions with small airports and as an alternative to road feeder service in the 300- to 430-mile range. The autonomous freighter is better suited for areas with water crossings, mountains, poor highway infrastructure or low-density routes where truck deliveries are less efficient, the company argues.
Blended-wing bodies have been used in military applications but were abandoned by previous commercial developers because they weren’t ideal for carrying passengers. Without people to worry about, issues about cabin pressurization, quick access to exit doors for evacuation and G-forces became manageable in a cargo-only aircraft.
A year ago Natilus announced $6 billion in advance purchase commitments, including from Kenyan all-cargo airline Astral Aviation, for more than 440 semi-autonomous aircraft.
Whether those orders are realized remains to be seen. Natilus is a 7-year-old startup with new technology that has yet to produce an actual plane and will require huge amounts of capital for further R&D and establishing a manufacturing line. The motivation for Ameriflight, and other carriers, to sign expressions of interest is to be at the front of the line when production aircraft become available and get a jump on competitors.
Matyushev told FreightWaves the company expects to begin Kona flight tests in late 2024 and customer deliveries in 2026. The larger planes will take longer.
Ameriflight Invests for Future
Ameriflight, the largest U.S. carrier in the under-7,500-pound payload category and a major regional partner for UPS Airlines, believes Natilus can deliver on its promise to improve the economics of airfreight.
“What we’ve seen from their technology so far has given us confidence that they’re at the forefront of large autonomous cargo planes,” said Jamie Smith, the company’s director of communications. “We’re impressed with Natilus’ continued progress on the blended-wing body aircraft design and their innovation of providing turnkey solutions for specific cargo needs. Natilus’ technology provides a lower cost of operation, while remaining well suited in capabilities for the customers in our corner of the industry. As battery technology increases and/or hydrogen-powered engines are developed and certified, the ability to modify the Kona to those alternate power sources is inviting.”
The Kona aircraft will enable Ameriflight to grow its route structure and pursue new business opportunities, she added.
Ameriflight utilizes turboprop aircraft to connect rural areas to FedEx (NYSE: FDX), DHL and UPS (NYSE: UPS) air hubs in large cities and also offers on-demand expedited delivery service to logistics companies. The largest aircraft it operates are the Saab 340B and the Embraer 120. The fleet also consists of the Fairchild SSA-227 Metroliner, Beechcraft 1900 and Beechcraft 99.
The first few Saab 340Bs entered service late last year under a lease agreement with Miami-based Jetstream Aviation Capital for 15 used aircraft converted to main-deck freighters. Five more are expected to be delivered this spring.
In December 2021, Ameriflight reached an agreement providing Boston-based Merlin Labs access to its fleet for testing of its autonomous technology. Merlin’s software and hardware can control an aircraft without human intervention. The Google Ventures-backed company says it has flown hundreds of flights and integrated its platform into four different aircraft types, including multi-engine aircraft. Large aircraft will be able to fly with reduced crews and smaller aircraft will fly themselves, once regulators approve autonomous aviation.
The immediate benefit for Ameriflight is an increase in flight safety. If it proves out, the airline could retrofit all cockpits and avionics with autonomous technology, extending the life of its existing fleet — a less expensive proposition than buying purpose-built robot aircraft.
A key reason Ameriflight is pursuing the Natilus and Merlin Labs technologies is that they reduce the need for pilots, which are increasingly difficult to find because of retirements, training barriers, licensing costs and quality-of-life issues.
“Today, a pilot might come to us with a thousand hours of flight experience,” said former Ameriflight CEO Paul Chase in a news release about the transaction. With the Merlin system “we’re putting the equivalent of much more experience in the cockpit on Day One. You don’t have this learning curve that pilots need to go through, and that lowers the overall risk profile to the airline.
“It’s imperative that we complement — not replace — our existing team of fixed-wing pilots with autonomous pilots. We have ample opportunities for growth in front of us with the increased level of e-commerce, disruptions in the supply chain, etc. But we can’t capitalize on that in any significant way unless we solve this staffing problem in a scalable and cost-effective way.”
Ameriflight last year significantly revised its pilot compensation program to include substantial pay increases and a six-figure retention bonus plan.
“Our intention is to use the Natilus and Merlin technology in tandem, along with our present operations, to support both our current customers and the growth we’re seeing in the demand for our services. They will be entirely complementary to, and most certainly not replacing, our current aircraft or pilot group. It will be an addition to our fleet and used as a separate business avenue, allowing us to grow our diversified aviation platform and to support the unprecedented demand for our services,” said Smith.
Autonomous Flight Evolution
The Natilus cargo jets will be capable of fully autonomous flight but initially operate with a remote pilot in an office to comply with current safety standards and enable faster approval. The ability to be certified under current regulations is a big advantage over drones used for last-mile logistics. Switching from a pilot in the cockpit to a “fly-by-mouse autopilot system” is a smaller leap for civil aviation authorities, which are already comfortable with existing autopilot functions that allow most of the trip to be preprogrammed and turn the pilot into a skilled flight manager rather than a manual aviator.
The remote operator simply inputs waypoints into the aircraft’s navigation system and monitors the system to make sure everything is functioning properly, Matyushev explained. With remote piloting, a single person could operate three aircraft simultaneously.
Natilus moved from Silicon Valley to San Diego two years ago to be close to a sophisticated wind tunnel and a Federal Aviation Administration office that manages certifications for advanced aircraft. Engineers used data from wind tunnel tests on models to predict flight characteristics of the full-scale aircraft and help refine the autopilot.
Last spring, the company acquired a 12,000-square-foot hangar and runway facility at Brown Field. It plans to fly a small-scale prototype to gather more data on flight characteristics and close another funding round this summer, Matyushev said.
Final assembly will take place in San Diego with components made by suppliers such as Janicki, which will build carbon fiber panels, bulkheads and other sections.
Other companies pursuing middle-mile and heavy unmanned aerial vehicles include Switzerland-based Destinus SA with a hypersonic plane, Dronamics, Drone Delivery Canada and Elroy Air with its hybrid-electrical Chapparal drone. Natilus is the only one with a blended-wing body.
For more coverage on drone delivery, go to FreightWaves.com.