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:
U.S. Sanctions Take Aim at Russian Lancet Suicide Drones
What happened? The U.S. State, Commerce, and Treasury departments brought sanctions against Zala Aero—the manufacturer of Lancet kamikaze drones used by Russia against Ukraine—its suppliers, and more than 100 other companies thought to be providing Moscow with defense technology. It’s the first time the U.S. has targeted the Lancet with sanctions.
A “step change”: According to British military intelligence, Lancet drones have helped Russia create a “step change” in its offensive capabilities through precise, long-range, deadly strikes. The so-called loitering munitions can hang in the air over enemy territory for hours, waiting for the right moment (and target) to attack. Each costs only around $35,000 to produce.
Russia has reportedly been using a new variant of the Lancet since October 21—this model has an even greater range (45 miles) than its predecessor and is designed to be flown in a swarm, adding another dimension to the threat. Russia also deploys Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones, while Ukraine relies on Turkish Bayraktar TB2s and U.S.-made Switchblades.
Will sanctions move the needle? In short…maybe. The State and Treasury departments each designated more than 100 firms and individuals for sanctions, while the Commerce Department added 13 companies, including Zala, to its entity list, curbing U.S. exports. The restrictions take aim directly at Russian manufacturers but also their procurement networks in other countries.
U.S. sanctions on Russia so far have been a mixed bag. But Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and others are optimistic about the latest round. One expert told FLYING the Lancet uses nearly 20 parts produced in the U.S., so sanctions figure to throw a wrench in Moscow’s plans. At the very least, they’ll force Russia to look elsewhere for components.
Quick quote: “The Lancet has been a powerful weapon for Russia, providing a high-speed precision strike capability for use against Ukrainian artillery and Western-supplied armored vehicles and tanks. In many ways, the Lancet has been key to blunting Ukraine’s counter-offensive,” Dr. James Rogers, executive director of Cornell University’s Brooks Tech Policy Institute, told FLYING.
My take: This week’s sanctions mark the first official action the U.S. government has taken against the Lancet threat, and any impediment to Russia’s production could have a sizable impact.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, Russian forces are “relying heavily” on Lancet drones to make up for a lack of efficacy on the ground. The kamikaze drones have been used to hit targets deep in Ukrainian territory from behind the frontlines, and while they’re usually foiled by air defenses, just one of the cheaply made aircraft can inflict significant damage.
The Lancet is not the only suicide drone Russia deploys. But it has the advantage of being homebuilt, while Iranian Shahed munitions must be imported. Still, Moscow is dependent on foreign technology to build its Lancets, and sanctions will almost certainly limit production—at least until Russia can find another supplier. Given how heavily its forces have relied on the aircraft, a dent in Lancet production could mean a dent in Russia’s offensive power.
In Other News…
The U.S. Is Flying Surveillance Drones Over Gaza, Pentagon Confirms
What happened? As the U.S. takes aim at Russian loitering munitions, it’s continuing to fly its own over the Gaza Strip. Following reports of mysterious uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the area, the Pentagon last week confirmed U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are flying unarmed MQ-9 Reaper drones over the region to aid Israel in hostage recovery efforts.
What’s in the air? Amelia Smith, an open source investigator who has been tracking the drones’ movement, told FLYING that a total of seven Reapers—four per day—are flying over Gaza, by her estimate. A Pentagon spokesperson confirmed the flights began October 7, the day of Hamas’ deadly invasion. U.S. officials say these are the first drone missions over Gaza.
The MQ-9 is considered the U.S.’s first “hunter-killer” UAV, but today it’s used mainly for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance purposes. The Pentagon explained that the aircraft will only search for Israeli and other hostages—unnamed U.S. officials told The New York Times that potential leads will be passed along to the Israel Defense Forces.
Archer Eyes India Launch with Agreement for Sale of 200 Air Taxis
What happened? Archer Aviation, maker of the Midnight electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxi, announced its second international launch market in as many months. The manufacturer will work with India’s InterGlobe to build an urban air mobility (UAM) ecosystem across the country, with plans to launch in 2026. It may also deliver up to 200 aircraft.
Rideshare in the air: India is notorious for its congested streets, which has restricted the country’s rideshare market and held back firms such as Uber from profitability. Archer hopes to change that—a trip in India that could take well over an hour by car could be made in just seven minutes with Midnight, the company said. And it expects the service will be cost-competitive.
The air taxi orders aren’t set in stone. But Archer and InterGlobe, one of India’s largest travel firms, will soon begin working with other local partners to build vertiports and train pilots and personnel to fly and maintain Midnight. India is the second international launch market Archer has announced, following news last month that it plans to fly in the United Arab Emirates.
And a Few More Headlines:
- Archer is selling its air taxi, but it also bought electric aircraft chargers from Beta Technologies as the latter looks to expand its network.
- According to SpaceX, Starship, the most powerful rocket ever built, could fly again this month after an April crash grounded it.
- Eve Air Mobility, the eVTOL manufacturing subsidiary of Embraer, picked three more components suppliers for its air taxi.
- Israel has reportedly submitted a request for 200 Switchblade 600 kamikaze drones, which the Pentagon is now reviewing.
- Hyundai eVTOL subsidiary Supernal plans to build its first U.S. manufacturing plant and apply for FAA certification.
On the Horizon…
After a few weeks packed with activity, this week was light on major drone, eVTOL, and AAM developments.
But there was an interesting one on the space travel front. A pair of House republicans on the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee introduced the Commercial Space Act of 2023—a bill meant to promote U.S. leadership in commercial spaceflight by cutting through regulatory red tape and promoting advances in technology.
Among other things, the legislation would create a certification pathway for nongovernmental space travel, require operators to submit plans for dealing with space junk, and elevate the Office of Space Commerce as an independent entity within the Commerce Department. The goal is to build a “favorable and competitive” industry at home in the U.S.
Elsewhere, the House FAA reauthorization bill continues to stall in the Senate as the extended December 31 deadline looms. In the meantime, it’s worth keeping an eye on how new administrator Michael Whitaker runs things.
Just a few days after Whitaker’s confirmation on October 24, the agency announced a key collaboration with the U.S. Air Force to speed the development of U.S. eVTOL technology. It’s unclear whether the partnership was in the works before Whitaker took over. But the ex-Supernal executive brings plenty of AAM experience, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him build on the work of his predecessor Billy Nolen, who left the FAA to join Archer in June.
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:
- Dubai Air Show—November 13-17 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates
- Aerospace Tech Week Americas 2023—November 14-15 in Atlanta
- Advanced Air Mobility Summit 2023—November 20-21 in Lisbon, Portugal
- ICAO Drone Enable—December 5-7 in Montreal
- 11th Annual eVTOL Symposium—February 6-8 in Silicon Valley, California
- Drone Show Korea 2024—March 6-8 in Busan, South Korea
- World’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Conference—March 17-19 in Jerusalem
- AUVSI Xponential 2024—April 22-25 in San Diego
- Vertical Flight Society’s Forum 80—May 7-9 in Montreal
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