San Francisco-based aircraft startup Airflow this week unveiled the unique concept for a hybrid electric cargo plane capable of taking off and landing on runways just 300 feet in length.
The single-pilot aircraft is designed for middle-mile logistics operations and could serve as a faster alternative to trucks, flying from 50-200 miles between airports and warehouses.
“[Logistics companies] want to use our aircraft for missions that aircraft typically can’t fly today and that you’re using trucks for today,” said Marc Ausman, CEO and co-founder of Airflow.
One of the plane’s assets is how little infrastructure it requires, according to Ausman. “We could land on a road or a beach or a field or something, or even just put down a 300-foot runway, which is easy to do,” he said. It’s possible runways for the aircraft could exist atop warehouses where the planes are making deliveries. “We see these warehouses as kind of next-generation airports, because it’s no problem to put a 300-foot runway on top,” Ausman said.
The aircraft, which have 500 pounds of cargo capacity, a wingspan of about 35 feet, and a max gross weight of 3000 pounds, are capable of taking off and landing in 150 feet on a 300-foot runway, thanks to electric short takeoff and landing (eSTOL) technology, Ausman said.
The startup pursued an eSTOL design for its advantages over electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL), Ausman said. Not only are eSTOL planes easier to certify, the operating costs are about one-third of eVTOL costs, a difference that could allow savings of up to $800 per flight hour, Ausman estimated.
Some aspects of the plane’s design have yet to be finalized. “We are currently evaluating either aluminum or carbon fiber composite aircraft,” Ausman said. While aluminum is easier to certify, composites would allow the company to create complex shapes that are difficult with aluminum. Aluminum also has the advantage of being easier to repair in the field, Ausman added.
The plane’s hybrid electric system extends its range, thus diversifying the potential network. “This means we can fly, say, cargo out to an island that doesn’t have an airport,” Ausman said, whereas a fully electric plane would require charging infrastructure everywhere it landed.
While the ultimate goal is to make the craft autonomous, it won’t be possible to do so any time soon, Ausman said. Due to the complexity of integrating autonomous systems with existing air traffic, fully autonomous flight is unlikely to be commercially viable in mature economies like the United States, Canada and Europe.