When you think of drone delivery, chances are you’re not envisioning a piano flying through the sky.
The vast majority of delivery drones aren’t designed to carry more than a few pounds. But others like Sabrewing’s Rhaegal drone can carry more — a lot more.
The Oxnard, California-based cargo drone manufacturer on Wednesday announced that a preproduction model of Rhaegal was able to lift 829 pounds of payload, shattering the previous world record “dead lift” of any commercial, vertical takeoff, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
The aircraft, also known as the RG-1-A “Alpha” model, is capable of both autonomous vertical and conventional takeoff on a runway, designed to carry not just pounds but tons of cargo. When taking off conventionally, Rhaegal has enough thrust to carry more than 2 tons of cargo at an altitude of up to 22,000 feet and a speed of around 230 mph.
The record-setting flight, though, was conducted using vertical takeoff, similar to the way a helicopter gets off the ground.
“This is only a fraction of what this aircraft can carry,” said Ed De Reyes, chairman and CEO of Sabrewing. “But it proves that we’re able to lift more cargo on our maiden flight than any previous cargo UAV that has ever flown.”
Rhaegal is powered by a system called a turbo-electric drivetrain, which uses electric generators to convert mechanical energy from a gas- or steam-powered turbine into electric energy. It’s a method sometimes used by warships and merchant ships.
Rhaegal’s drivetrain is based on a helicopter engine developed by Safran, which uses a turbine-based motor called the Ariel 2E. It can use 50% sustainable aviation fuel — a feedstock-based alternative to conventional jet fuel — and its electric generator powers electric motors in four ducted fans.
By making improvements to the blades, ducts and shape of the aircraft’s fans, Sabrewing was able to increase the Alpha model’s thrust by 30%. That helped it to lift the record-breaking payload.
“We’re able to generate more propulsive energy — much more efficiently — with a turbo-electric drivetrain and ducted fans than with batteries or directly driven by the turbine,” said Oliver Garrow, chief technology officer for Sabrewing. “The Safran motor is currently cleared to use 50% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). We expect to be one of the first aircraft manufacturers to use hydrogen when Safran completes testing on their motor in the next couple of years.”
While Safran assisted in production of the drivetrain, Sabrewing enlisted several other companies to develop Rhaegal. Leonardo Aerospace contributed to the avionics, Toray provided composite materials, Garmin assisted with navigation and Attollo Engineering worked on Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensors.
The aircraft also uses remote positioning technology from Spider Tracks and software developed by California State University Channel Islands and a trio of U.S. universities.
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In production currently is a second model called Rhaegal RG-1-B “Bravo,” designed for first-, middle- and last-mile cargo deliveries. Sabrewing says the design can lift 10 times more cargo than its closest competitor and fly five times farther.
Bravo, according to Sabrewing, is also the only UAV in the world capable of carrying more than 10 unit load device cargo containers — the same kind that airliners use. The model can even power reefers, or refrigerated containers, both on the ground and in the air.
Sabrewing in the announcement said it has purchase orders for 28 aircraft, with another 102 firm requests and 400 letters of intent on tap. Those orders represent a $3.2 billion orderbook for the firm over the next six to seven years. Initial orders are slated to be delivered by December 2023.
The company also has contracts with the U.S. Air Force to study autonomous cargo delivery to harsh environments. It touted that Rhaegal can be used for more than just cargo deliveries, suggesting that things like search-and-rescue missions, disaster relief and medical deliveries could be future applications. Already, the Air Force has run a demonstration using the aircraft to evacuate up to eight injured people.
Sabrewing reached a basis of certification agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration in October 2019, and Rhaegal is now nearing certification in the U.S. The company is also working on certification with the European Aviation Safety Agency, the FAA’s European Union counterpart.