Super duper Uber: sky’s the limit for autonomous air cargo

(Photo: Uber)

In December, FreightWaves reported on startup Natilus as they seek to cut the cost of air freight in half. That’s right, the California-based startup is working on drone technology that can carry cargo at 50% the cost of a Boeing 747 and at 17 times the speed of a standard cargo ship.

In February, another ambitious and impressive venture caught our attention. 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. One of the milestone goals of their project is to be the first to run an un-piloted, un-refueled and nonstop transcontinental flight by a civilian drone.

With its Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) 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.

Not to be outdone, several months ago, Boeing also announced a design for a cargo drone. The manufacturer said this new unmanned VTOL aircraft prototype is also a test bed for future vehicles.

“This flying cargo air vehicle represents another major step in our Boeing eVTOL strategy,” said Boeing CTO 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.”

The cargo air vehicle (CAV) is designed to transport a payload up to 500 pounds for possible future cargo and logistics applications, Boeing said. The prototype would be powered by an environmentally friendly electric propulsion system and outfitted with eight counter-rotating blades. It measures 15 feet long, 18 feet wide and four feet tall and weighs 747 pounds.

“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, VP of Boeing HorizonX — the manufacturer’s venture arm. “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.”

While there are numerous A.I. companies invested (and investing) in air freight, especially when it comes to autonomous and VTOL capability, few have the network and means to make it sexy and consumer-friendly like Uber Air.  

In late 2016, Uber announced its pie-in-the-sky, white paper plan to launch an urban flying taxi service within a decade. Since then, the company has done some serious taxiing on the runway. In addition to recruiting staff from places like NASA and Tesla, Uber has signed up aircraft manufacturers to build rooftop-hopping planes, along with a pair of launch cities–Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth–to host test flights beginning in 2020.

Today, Uber revealed its latest model–a prototype design that aircraft makers can use as a starting point for planes that will qualify to run on the UberAir network. The design debuted as part of Uber’s Elevate Summit in Los Angeles this week, where it announces partnerships, and partners announce their progress toward the flying car dream.

The eCRM, as it’s called, is not as sexy as prototypes by Uber rivals, such as the tilting wings of Airbus Vahana or the tilting “electric jets” of Lilium. Uber says its first goals are for passenger safety and comfort, such as wings that shield riders from rain as they board or depart the plane.

As Uber has already pushed the boundaries in the logistics space with Uber Freight, as well as entering into the autonomous driving fray, it’s not hard to see where they could be headed in the not-so-distant future.

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Chad Prevost

Chad is radio host and broadcast media specialist for FreightWaves.