It's not exactly Prime Air, but improved efficiency in the global movement of freight could potentially benefit us all.
Moving freight around the globe is a complicated affair. If cost is the priority, goods are more likely to end up in containers packed onto giant cargo ships for slow journeys across several seas. If speed is critical, cargo planes will do the work, transporting stuff in super-quick time but at a higher cost.
But what if there was a middle way, a sweet spot that was cheaper than a plane but faster than a ship?
Natilus, a startup based in Richmond, California, says it’s come up with a design that could transform the way goods are moved around the world using an autonomous, and amphibious, jumbo-jet-sized drone capable of carrying up to 200,000 pounds of cargo.
The team is planning to run FAA-approved tests as early as this summer, with a near-term ambition to send a prototype machine on 30-hour test flights between Los Angeles and Hawaii with up to 700 pounds of cargo, Natilus CEO Aleksey Matyushev told Fast Company.
The proposed autonomous aircraft, which is about the size of a Boeing 777 jet, is designed to use turboprop and turbofan engines and regular jet fuel, and fly at an altitude of around 20,000 feet. To reduce the chances of falling foul of flight regulations, the drone would avoid flying over land and dock in sea ports for loading and unloading procedures.
Natilus says its drone would travel 17 times faster than a standard cargo ship. Operational costs, meanwhile, would be half that of a Boeing 747 cargo plane, achieved by making more efficient use of fuel and savings on pilot costs.
Offering an example, the team says that moving 200,000 pounds of cargo from LA to Shanghai takes a cargo ship 504 hours at a cost of $61,00o. A Boeing 747 takes 11 hours at a cost of cost $260,00o. Its drone, however, would take 30 hours and cost $130,000, speeding up delivery time over cargo ships while slashing operational costs for air transport.
Assuming the project receives further funding, Natilus says it wants to build a full-scale drone by 2020. After testing, it envisions selling the machine to shipping giants like FedEx and UPS, as well as smaller firms. The plan clearly has a long way to go before it has any hope of becoming a reality, but in an industry constantly looking for cost savings and efficiency improvements, Natilus seems determined that its enormous autonomous flying machine will one day take to the skies.