Boeing unveils drone capable of carrying 500-pound cargo

Last-mile delivery might get very interesting very soon. Boeing has unveiled a prototype “unmanned electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) cargo air vehicle (CAV) prototype.” The eVTOL, Boeing said in a release, will be used to test and evolve autonomous technology for future aerospace vehicles.

But it can also transport goods, and if there is a business case to use it for that, you can bet Boeing will take advantage of it. Unlike current delivery drone prototypes and current testing which focus on delivering a small package to someone’s door, the eVTOL is capable of carrying up to 500 pounds. That can open up a lot more doors for last-mile delivery, potentially making drone delivery of things such as appliances and furniture possible – online sales for both have been growing must faster that overall e-commerce.

“This flying cargo air vehicle represents another major step in our Boeing eVTOL strategy,” said Boeing Chief Technology Officer Greg Hyslop. “We have an opportunity to really change air travel and transport, and we’ll look back on this day as a major step in that journey.”

It took Boeing engineers less than three months to develop the prototype, which builds upon the eVTOL passenger air vehicle prototype aircraft in development by Aurora Flight Sciences, a company acquired by Boeing late last year. The cargo version just completed initial flight tests at Boeing Research & Technology’s Collaborative Autonomous Systems Laboratory in Missouri.

This flying cargo air vehicle represents another major step in our Boeing eVTOL strategy. We have an opportunity to really change air travel and transport, and we’ll look back on this day as a major step in that journey.

— Greg Hyslop, Boeing CTO

Boeing HorizonX, with its partners in Boeing Research & Technology, led the development of the CAV prototype.

“Our new CAV prototype builds on Boeing’s existing unmanned systems capabilities and presents new possibilities for autonomous cargo delivery, logistics and other transportation applications,” said Steve Nordlund, Boeing HorizonX vice president. “The safe integration of unmanned aerial systems is vital to unlocking their full potential. Boeing has an unmatched track record, regulatory know-how and systematic approach to deliver solutions that will shape the future of autonomous flight.”

The drone is powered by an environmentally-friendly electric propulsion system running on custom Boeing batteries. and is outfitted with eight counter rotating blades allowing for vertical flight. It measures 15 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 4 feet tall, and weighs 747 pounds.

Boeing did not release details on flight distance or charging time, but it does have long-range freight plans for the vehicle.

“The goal is to develop it into a large-scale cargo platform. If you extend the range and extend the payload a little bit, and you think about delivering 250 or 500 pounds over a 10- or 20-mile radius, you can change the way the world connects, you can change the way we deliver goods,” said David Neely, Boeing research & technology.

It was previously disclosed that Boeing secured a patent for a cargo ship that can roll over a row of 20-, 40-, or 53-foot intermodal shipping containers, lower itself, lock them into place, and then proceed down the runway and take off. The patent describes how one of Boeing’s proposed planes could carry up to 18 40-foot containers in a transverse (sideways) orientation and would still be shorter than some of the largest passenger aircraft like the Boeing 777. That way, the plane could operate in existing airports without a need for special taxi-ways and run-ways typically needed for oversized aircraft.

Amazons, Workhorse, UPS and others are working on developing drones for delivery, but none of the current known plans involve a drone capable of carrying 500 pounds.

There are those that believe the future of autonomous freight movement may be in the skies, rather than on highways, but few have developed autonomous aerial ships capable of carrying heavy payloads. Walmart and Amazon both hold patents for flying warehouse concepts that would make deliveries via drone.

Natilus is currently working on building an autonomous drone that can carry cargo at 50% the cost of a Boeing 747 and at 17x times the speed of a standard cargo ship, but a prototype will not be ready for testing until 2020.

“We’ve really got a convergence of technologies right now in terms of hybrid electric propulsion, vertical takeoff and landing, and autonomy that is going to unlock autonomy in areas we haven’t seen before,” said Hyslop.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight covers general transportation news and leads the editorial team as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler.