Bulgarian Aeronautical Engineer Svilen Rangelov made the first pilot-less cargo aircraft, named Black Swan, along with his brother it took them 8 years to build it. Looking very much like a conventional light aircraft but without a pilot’s cabin, the drone combines “cell phone economics” in terms of cheap electronics, with the ability to land on short runways.
“Here in Bulgaria, air cargo means one large aircraft offloading goods onto a truck which then goes to a sorting center where the delivery is broken down for the next stage of its journey to individual sites.”
Svilen thinks taking a smaller load to a short airstrip closer to the final recipient will cut costs and take trucks off the road.
“There are 3,000 airstrips across Europe, that’s a lot of locations.”
Black Swan has different combinations of lightweight composite materials and a standard piston engine that sips petrol while the drone cruises on long and fuel-efficient wings. This whole package will fly at 20,000ft altitude, below the mass of passenger air traffic. Dronamics sees this height band as unused airspace and is also testing out a new, synthetic aviation fuel that it claims will allow carbon-neutral flights. Black Swan weighs about 350kg (770lb) cargo load.
“We’re connecting city to city, not door to door.”
Dronamics plans to operate Black Swans like an airline, “Europe’s first drone cargo airline.” It will charge by weight or charter, cutting out the cost and time taken by vehicles that crisscross Europe to deliver essential goods and parts.
German logistics giant Hellmann is poised to begin using these drones. Jan Kleine-Lasthues is in charge of this initiative and he has spent a long career in airfreight.
Mr. Kleine-Lasthues doesn’t see conventional air freight facing competition from these new designs, but thinks the drones will allow Hellmann to fly goods that previously traveled by road.
Connecting Greek islands by cargo drone is one of Hellmann’s immediate ambitions, says Mr. Kleine-Lasthues.
“The drones will be more frequent than ferries and we can use them to break down deliveries into several packages, so we can increase the frequency of deliveries. They represent a big change, they offer speed and flexibility.”
Dronamics claims that its aircraft range is 2,500km (1,500 miles), which can put the whole of Western Europe within range of any EU-based cargo hub. While smaller versions of the drone are already flying in Bulgaria, a full-scale prototype should be airborne in early 2023.
Dronamics says the European aerospace regulator has been kept apprised of its planned operations and given it a limited license to operate. Hellmann is talking about beginning to fly them during 2023.
Mr. Kleine-Lasthues shares the opinion that earlier drone delivery models were a dead end. “I never believed in the idea of parcel drones. That’s why we’re working with Dronamics, it’s not an Amazon delivery-type idea.”
Cargo drones have attracted the attention of Bristow, a US group that operates helicopters around the globe. Bristow has signaled its intent to buy up to 100 cargo drones from a Californian company, Elroy Air. Electric Vertical Take-Off (Evtol) designs feature all-electric power, the Elroy Air cargo drones will run on a hybrid electric engine, a small turbine that generates electrical power and runs off aviation fuel.
The hybrid design means the drone can refuel at existing facilities rather than relying on docking stations for electricity. And it burns less than a third of the fuel a helicopter uses.
“Pure electric power means you’re constrained by where you put the charging base,” says David Stepanek, a former US Marine Corps helicopter technician who is now a Bristow executive studying cargo drone operations.
Bristow is looking at using the Elroy drones to back up its operations in locations such as West Africa, where the offshore oil industry needs to shift equipment and Bristow wants to reduce the costs of using helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
Elroy Air has been working on a large multi-engined, vertical take-off drone that can heave a 225lb (100kg) load up to 480km (300 miles).
Elroy Air’s Kofi Asante researched autonomous trucks at Uber’s freight arm. He points out that the idea of a cargo pod attached and then de-coupled from the chassis of an autonomous truck also works for a cargo drone.
He describes relations with the US regulator the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) as “very positive” with a test flight for a full-sized drone planned by the end of 2022.
At over 8m (26ft) in width the drone, named Chapparal, is large by uncrewed civil drone standards. But that size is the point says, Mr. Asante.
“It can carry a hundred times the payload of a small UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), it’s comparable to a small plane in terms of load but operates at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter.”