Commercial passenger jets fly at an altitude of around 30,000 feet or higher. Imagine sitting in a window seat of one of those giant aluminum tubes a few years from now as it makes its way across the Pacific Ocean. Picture looking down about 10,000 feet below. You just might see what one startup thinks could be the future of international cargo transport.
The idea is simple: Shipping by air is fast, but expensive. Boat is much cheaper, but very slow. So why not send all those boxes and packages on an un-piloted, amphibious Boeing 777-sized drone that can fly point to point and eventually drop off as much as 200,000 pounds of cargo at a seaside port? It would carry that cargo at about half the cost of normal air freight thanks to a more efficient use of fuel and the lack of an expensive crew.
Just as the long-haul freight sector has made huge strides in efficiency gains and cost reduction due to technology innovation, the $15.5 trillion global freight market is poised for disruption as it strives to offer customers more cost-effective delivery solutions beyond the decades-old vessels and aircraft which serve as its primary sources of transport. Natilus has identified the sweet spot between sea and air freight in the international freight market, offering a large cargo-capacity UAV that challenges current incumbents on price and speed of commercial-scale freight delivery.
“Today’s freight sector is limited to just two choices when it comes to meeting customer demand – an expensive 14-hour route by air or a slow-going 21-day ocean trip. Why haven’t there been more options?” said Tuff Yen, Founder and President of Seraph Group. “Natilus’s value proposition, the ability to provide cost-effective cargo container-sized air options, creates a far-reaching impact on cost of goods, logistics, finance and commerce.”
Because the drones would be unlikely to receive government approval to fly over populated areas, they are designed to take off and land in the water. They don’t even have landing gears. The expectation is that after landing, they would taxi into a standard port, where cargo would be unloaded using cranes.
Today Natilus announced it has closed a second round of seed funding with investment from Starburst Ventures, Seraph Group, Gelt VC, Outpost Capital and Draper Associates. The funds will go toward the company’s aggressive scaling strategy, with the first Federal Aviation Administration-approved flight for its 30-foot prototype scheduled for late 2017, and a commercial market launch in 2020.
Astral Aviation, a leading air freight provider in Africa, is “excited for Natilus’s progress in developing large cargo drones for the industry. Astral is looking to incorporate aerial vehicles such as Natilus into their African network to complement their current schedule and improve cargo connectivity in Africa,” said Sanjeev Gadhia, CEO of Astral Aviation.
Natilus’s large-scale drones will be comprised of carbon fiber composites while using existing turbofan and turboprop engines, scaling to a long-term vision of 950,000-pound airplanes carrying 120 tons over trans-Pacific routes. Its next vehicle, a 12,000-pound drone capable of carrying 2 tons over 1000 nautical miles, will feature retractable landing gear and will be capable of taking off and landing at local regional airports.
“Natilus is well positioned to be the leader in fast inexpensive delivery of goods,” said Tim Draper, Founding Partner of Draper Associates. “It turns out that a self-flying vehicle can be more reliable and less expensive than one with a human in it.”