Autonomous across the ocean: Sabrewing flies through first round of funding

 Sabrewing’s battery-less, gas-electric hybrid can fly anytime, anywhere, over and around weather – and can carry up to 3,000 lbs. of cargo up to 5,000 miles. (Photo: Sabrewing)
Sabrewing’s battery-less, gas-electric hybrid can fly anytime, anywhere, over and around weather – and can carry up to 3,000 lbs. of cargo up to 5,000 miles. (Photo: Sabrewing)

There have been several firsts in aviation history — 1909 when Luis Blerlot crossed the English Channel, 1927 when Charles Lindebergh conquered the Atlantic, and 1969 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The next achievement in flight will be the first un-piloted, un-refueled and nonstop transcontinental flight by a civilian drone.

Sabrewing Aircraft Company, founded by Ed De Reyes and Oliver Garrow, has designed an unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) that can fly 5,000 miles un-refueled for up to 50 hours. Sabrewing’s battery-less, gas-electric hybrid can fly anytime, anywhere, over and around weather – and can carry up to 3,000 lbs. of cargo.

It’s considered a vertical-take-off-and-landing drone (VTOL) with a lot more power than other current models on the market, and with exceptional fuel-efficiency, which cuts down on costs, De Reyes tells FreightWaves.

Currently, UAVs can either fly for long periods of time, but can’t carry much of a load, (less than 50 lbs.) or they can fly a heavy load (more than 50 lbs.) but only for a short distance. Sabrewing Aircraft Company is changing the drone industry with the introduction of the Draco-2 UAV, which utilizes innovative, patent-pending technologies to allow high-altitude operations, active drag reduction and highly-sensitive “sense and avoid technologies” that allow the Draco-2 air vehicle the ability to fly well beyond the operator’s line-of-sight. The Draco-2:

         Can be operated autonomously or remotely piloted

         Uses the same fuel, tools and parts that are currently and readily available

         Can fly at high altitude to avoid adverse weather

         Uses active drag reduction to greatly reduce cost of operation

         Is easily hangered in less space than a cargo aircraft

Sabrewing announced this week that it has raised 140% of its initial angel funding goal, according to CEO Ed De Reyes. “We will close this round shortly, and cap this round at just under $1 million,” says De Reyes. De Reyes says they raised the funds from The Drone Fund, Integro LTD and two other investors.

Currently, Sabrewing is in between “proof of concept” stage and running toward manufacturing. They’re currently building a large-scale, long-endurance, high cargo capacity demonstrator UAV that is a 65% scale of their full-size drone. The demonstrator will also be used to compete in the Pacific Drone Challenge, and as a demonstrator for both commercial and US Department of Defense sectors.

According to De Reyes, testing is expected to begin in May of 2018 and will focus on system function, endurance and operations in preparation for a historic flight from Japan to Silicon Valley. The Draco-2 is designed to fly at altitudes reaching 22,000 feet (6700 meters). That’s also how they plan to start getting regulator’s — and the public’s — attention.

De Reyes sees this craft getting up to speed in earnest probably even before 2020. They’re also going to be testing in more remote villages like Alaska and western Canada. “There are times of the year where you can’t get anything there because of the thaw. It’s even tough for helicopters. We’re trying to do even what regular aircraft can’t get in as easily. Bringing in cargo this way is actually going to be cheaper — the fuel’s going to be cheaper and there’s no pilot,” says De Reyes.

The full-scale version of their demonstrator aircraft will be able to fly for a similar distance but carry a greater payload than the demonstrator. Sabrewing’s full-scale UAV will be about the size of the Cessna-208 (Caravan) or Quest Kodiak, with similar acquisition costs and operational speed, but with almost double the payload of either aircraft.

Sabrewing’s UAV is primarily meant to serve both military and civilian cargo operations, and is priced well below the Caravan’s or Kodiak’s operating and maintenance costs – yet provides with greater range and payload. “It’s a healthy market,” says De Reyes. As for regulation, that hurdle hasn’t been crossed just yet but De Reyes, who is thoroughly familiar with the FAA, says he sees a “sea change” in the way the FAA responds to new technology now.

“They’re not as stringent as they used to be,” he says. “They’re basically saying ‘prove to use how you’re safe and we will grant you the permit.'”

The funding raised will be used to complete several one-quarter scale wind tunnel models for testing of the final design, and to start building the Draco-2 that will be tested within the Pan Pacific UAV Test Range Complex in Alaska, Oregon and Hawaii.

One of the key investors, CFO Kazunori Saito of the Japanese drone company iRobotics stated, “We are excited with the new technologies that Sabrewing is developing and bringing to the market. It is opening new possibilities that are amazing.”

“Work on a heavy-lift, long distance UAV has been progressing over several years, we have designed and built several UAVs since 2002,” says De Reyes. “Our team been working together on a Group 5 UAV specifically to fill the need for a UAV that can carry cargo in the range from 2000 to 4000 lbs.”

That’s part of the reason why they’re not bothering with batteries. Battery technology still isn’t there. “The compromises some companies are making just aren’t worth it,” says De Reyes. “The batteries don’t have the capacity. The fuel savings of our engine will already be enormous compared to our competitors -– and yet will function with the same density. The motor that we’re using is also compliant with California’s super strict motor emissions standards. Also, batteries are super heavy.”

Sabrewing’s drone can carry cargo to and from the most remote areas on earth in any weather without pilots aboard, and with greater safety, economy and efficiency than a manned cargo air vehicle. To date, other aircraft such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk have flown over the Pacific but have never been commercially available, nor designed to carry cargo, only for surveillance and reconnaissance and intelligence gathering.

“We’re building a drone that can fill the role of a mid-altitude, long-endurance cargo UAV. Our team has previously built a large-scale, manned air vehicle about the size of our demonstrator; now we’re taking the data and experience that we’ve gathered and building a UAV that can incorporate autonomy, economy, endurance and reliability,” De Reyes says.

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Chad Prevost

Chad is radio host and broadcast media specialist for FreightWaves.