This week, Boeing unveiled and completed initial flight tests of its fully-functional unmanned cargo aerial vehicle (CAV) prototype; the first of its kind for the aerospace goliath. Although analysts have long predicted that drones were on course to transform the logistics sector, the larger issue has been receiving operational clearance from regulators. Boeing’s experience in working with regulatory agencies however, could rapidly advance this technology, and pave the way for larger unmanned commercial cargo drones.
The CAV is powered by an electric propulsion system and outfitted with eight counter-rotating propellers, allowing for vertical and horizontal flight. It measures 4.6 meters long, 5.5 meters wide and 1.2 meters tall, and weighs 339 kilograms.
David Neely of Boeing Research & Technology said that the drone would eventually be able to deliver up to 227 kilograms of cargo with a range of fifteen- to-thirty-mile kilometers, adding that it could, “change the way we deliver goods.” These specs position Boeing’s drone in the last-mile delivery range, but Boeing hints this first model could lead to larger, more capable drones, adding the prototype will be used to “test and evolve Boeing’s autonomy technology for future aerospace vehicles.”
Boeing told our sister publication Air Cargo World, that the end goal was “market-driven solutions that will someday offer customers the ability to carry hundreds of pounds over broad distances in a way that makes it useful and relevant to them.”
The aerospace company expects that once mature, the technology tested on this prototype will revolutionize time-sensitive deliveries, particularly in dangerous environments and areas lacking proper transportation infrastructure.
Here’s a Boeing video showing the prototype in action:
While we aren’t likely to see Boeing’s drones delivering couches and groceries any time soon, there are a number of important takeaways worth considering:
Boeing said that it drew on expertise from across the areas of aviation it covers to rush the drone from concept to flight in only three months. Most drone manufacturers spend years developing technology and testing it. Boeing, on the other hand, has more than a hundred years of aviation research under its belt, and recently acquired aviation and aeronautics research company Aurora Flight Sciences, meaning that it’s going to move fast.
The drone’s eight propeller vertical-liftoff “quadcopter” design makes such a drone appropriate for deployment in shorter-range last-mile, or perhaps short-distance deliveries between clustered Distribution Centers. This market is of great interest not only to express carriers, but also to e-tailers such as Seattle-based Amazon.com and Chinese e-commerce retailer JD.com, which are constantly exploring methods of reducing fulfillment and delivery costs against a backdrop of growing demand for e-commerce deliveries.
Those interested in learning more about cargo drones and the future of air freight, are invited to join us in Shanghai at the Mandarin Oriental Pudong 23-25 April for Cargo Facts Asia, where a roundtable panel will be dedicated to the topic. To check out this year’s agenda, or to register, visit www.cargofactsasia.com