Three weeks after signing a tentative agreement for pilotless cargo planes made by startup Natilus, Ameriflight, a large regional cargo airline operating small aircraft for customers such as FedEx, UPS and DHL, formally expressed interest in purchasing 35 vertical takeoff and landing cargo drones from Sabrewing Aircraft Co.
Ameriflight last week said it expects to take delivery of Sabrewing’s Rhaegal-A heavy cargo drone following Federal Aviation Administration certification of the aircraft, which will be used to pursue new business opportunities in middle-mile replenishment of e-commerce distribution centers.
The Rhaegal-A VTOL aircraft can carry 1 ton of cargo to off-airport landing zones, a capability Ameriflight said is well-suited for more efficient warehouse deliveries because the aircraft can travel four times faster than truck. By enabling direct door delivery companies can save on airport transfer costs.
The Kona feeder aircraft being designed by Natilus requires a runway but has a maximum payload of 4.7 tons and a 900-mile range. The company says the planes will be operated by remote control and have the ability to be fully autonomous at some point in the future.
Ameriflight has not committed to buy either of the aircraft, but signing a letter of intent gives it front-of-the-line status for production slots if final orders are executed. Ameriflight is Sabrewing’s U.S. launch customer.
Management says both futuristic aircraft are intended to complement the existing fleet as it looks to diversify its business model and not replace piloted aircraft, although there will be operational savings from not needing to add more pilots for future growth.
Dallas-based Ameriflight flies 156 small turboprop aircraft, such as the Saab 340B, daily to more than 200 destinations in the U.S. and the Caribbean. It has more than 500 employees, including 150 pilots. In addition to providing overnight feeder service between rural communities and hub airports for express carriers, it offers on-demand cargo charter service.
“In looking to the future, adding this advanced aircraft to our portfolio will complement our fleet and increase our assortment of assets, allowing us to expand our service areas through the development of warehouse distribution operations,” said Ameriflight President and COO Alan Rusinowitz.
The size and capabilities of the Kona and Rhaegel-A “are well-suited for what we do best — short-to-medium haul flights transporting high priority freight,” Ameriflight spokeswoman Jamie Smith elaborated. “Ameriflight plans to use the aircraft to supplement its integrator operations and grow its on-demand expedited supply chain solutions products.”
Ameriflight intends to operate both the Sabrewing and Natilus aircraft when they are ready for commercial production because they each have unique capabilities, she added. The company is also working with Boston-based Merlin Labs on a system to retrofit existing aircraft with autonomous navigation.
Rhaegal cargo capabilities
The Rhaegal-A achieved its first hover flight in September while lifting a payload of 829 pounds, a record for a commercial vertical lift, uncrewed aircraft. The plane is designed to carry up to 2 tons of cargo over 1,000 nautical miles if taking off and landing in conventional mode on a runway. The company said big advances in the blades, ducts and shape of the shroud covering the aircraft’s ducted fans allows each duct to produce 30% more thrust than it was originally designed to provide.
The Rhaegal aircraft uses a turbo-electric drivetrain based on a helicopter motor from Safran. Sabrewing says its turbo-electric drivetrain, based on a helicopter motor from Safran, has more propulsion power than aircraft with batteries or direct-drive turbines.
The plane has a nose-entry cargo bay that is easily accessible from the ground and doesn’t require special loading equipment, as well as automatically collapsable wings to allow for easy ground transport and storage, according to the specifications. It can accommodate up to four small containers.
CEO Ed De Reyes said on an Air Cargo Next podcast last year that Sabrewing checked with FedEx and UPS before designing the plane to learn what features interested them and was told the plane needed to be able to carry standard unit load devices.
The company also says the Rhaegal has low maintenance costs because a module that needs an overhaul can be pulled out and replaced within 24 hours rather than going in the shop for weeks of repairs.
Sabrewing’s first customer is Arabian Development and Marketing Corp., which made a preliminary commitment for 53 Rhaegal-A aircraft in November for an estimated $278 million. ADMC also has 128 orders for the Rhaegal-B Bravo aircraft that is capable of lifting 5,400 pounds vertically and up to 10,000 pounds conventionally. The list price of that deal is valued at more than $821 million. It will lease the aircraft to airlines and other users in the Middle East and Africa.
The Hayward, California, company, which was founded in 2016, said it is in the process of initiating the aircraft’s production line, with first deliveries expected to take place in the first quarter of 2024. The aircraft will be able to use sustainable aviation fuel, which is less carbon intensive than traditional jet fuel.