Drones for cargo transportation: the future?

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Several drone companies have been looking into the development of drones for cargo transportation.

Sichuan Tengden Technology, a Bejing based Chinese startup company, has revealed their ongoing development of a cargo drone capable of autonomously carrying 20 tons of cargo. It would then become the world’s biggest commercial unmanned aerial vehicle. The high-tech enterprise was set up by Chinese aviation experts and an investment company owned by the Chinese state.

According to Sichuan Tengden Technology, the drone will feature eight engines, a wingspan of 41 meters and a flight capability of up to 7500 kilometers. The drone could be used for other operations as well, such as the monitoring of forests, disaster scenes and rescue operations.

The first ever flight of the drone is scheduled for 2020. Sichuan also points out that a cargo drone could halve the costs of conventional air cargo transportation due to the fact that there is no flight crew, and less fuel needed.

Sichuan isn’t the only company invested in the cargo drone venture however. Natilus, A California based startup, is developing a similar cargo drone with a 90-ton capacity. The drone would be 60 meters long and is also scheduled to take off in 2020 for the first time.

They have already flown an FAA-approved test of a 30-foot prototype last summer, about the size and weight of military Predator drones. Natilus has the ambition to eventually fly the prototype on 30-hour test runs, with a cargo load of up to 700 pounds, between Los Angeles and Hawaii.

The drones will be powered with turboprop and turbofan engines and standard jet fuel, flying at an altitude of about 20,000 feet. So while that’s well below commercial airlines, it’s still high enough to be fuel-efficient. And thus, this would mean half the costs of current commercial air freight transportation, with less fuel cost and no expensive crew cost to factor in.

Because the drones would probably not receive government approval to fly over populated areas, they are designed to take off and land in water. The drones would then be taxied into a standard port, where the cargo would be unloaded by cranes.

The goal is to finish production of the full-scale drone by 2020, followed by testing and certification before commencing commercial flights. The company envisions selling the drones directly to clients like Amazon and UPS for example, but also considers starting their own drone airline, flying with their customer’s branding.

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Natilus' prototype drone

Image source: fastcompany.com

In addition, Boeing has recently introduced their cargo drone, which can carry up to 227 kilograms or 500 pounds. They have created an unmanned electric air vehicle prototype for testing purposes, with the end goal being the evolution of autonomous cargo delivery vehicles.

The prototype was showcased at CES in Las Vegas back in January. It’s powered by an environmentally-friendly electric propulsion system, and equipped with eight counter-rotating blades to realize vertical flight.

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Boeing's cargo drone in action

Image source: slashgear.com

The drone weighs in at 339 kilograms or 747 pounds, it measures 4.57 meters or 15 feet long, it’s 5.49 meters or 18 feet wide and 1.22 meters or 4 feet tall. The project is led by Boeing HorizonX – a subdivision of the aerospace company which has the goal of searching the world for startups offering revolutionary ideas.

These companies aren’t the first to create delivery drones, but their prototypes are much bigger and more powerful than the drones unveiled by Amazon, Google and UPS for example, which are more focused on the delivery of smaller items meant to be delivered to doorsteps. It looks like we’re moving closer to a more efficient way of transporting goods and ourselves by the way of drones. Could this be the future?

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