A Camarillo, California company called Sabrewing Aircraft, Inc. was the buzz at the Alaska Air Carriers Association Convention this year.  

It’s where Sabrewing’s CEO and co-founder, Ed De Reyes, announced a joint venture with a tribal government to develop the Rhaegal and the Wyvern, heavy-duty drones designed to carry air cargo to some of Alaska’s most remote communities.

The autonomous aircraft are named after dragons in the popular TV series, Game of Thrones. The Rhaegal, designed to be about the size of a large pick-up truck, would carry about 800 pounds of cargo. DeReyes says the larger Wyvern, would be about the size of a Fed Ex delivery truck and would carry more than 4,000 pounds. But he says, to date, only a small-scale model of the Rhaegal has actually been flown.  

De Reyes says the agreement is historic, especially if it leads to FAA certification, key to developing the aircraft for commercial use.

For this episode of Frontiers, we sat down with De Reyes to get more specifics about his plane, which he says is technically not a drone but a UAV –an unmanned aerial vehicle.

De Reyes has been working with the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, the tribal government, to use the island as a test range for the Rhaegal and the Wyvern.

De Reyes says the Rhaegal is now under construction at the company’s production facility in the Los Angeles area. Under the agreement, the tribal government will buy the first full-sized model. As the project progresses, the tribe plans to purchase up to ten planes.

De Reyes says the tribal government’s investment is valued at about $43 million. It’s agreement to operate the test range, which would be the one of the largest in North America, would be figured into the purchase price.

Sabrewing has also agreed to provide tribal members with training on how to conduct the testing, as well as operate and maintain the aircraft.

Here are some of the highlights from this week’s show: 

  • Unmanned Aircraft: A Game Changer? Ed De Reyes talks about some of the sophisticated technology incorporated into the design of the aircraft. So far, about 18 patents on the plane are pending – that include folding wings, which allow the UAV to fly like a helicopter. 
  • Paul Island: A Proving Ground? A look at why Sabrewing is looking to a remote island in the Bering Sea to test and certify its aircraft
  • Tribal Entrepreneurs: Amos Philemonoff, president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, is our featured guest. He talks how the tribe has worked hard to prepare its labor force for this partnership, including plans to open up an extension of the University of Alaska’s Bristol Bay campus at the St. Paul Island school.

Jane Dale, director of the Alaska Air Carriers Association, believes the Sabrewing aircraft could be a game changer for Alaska’s air cargo industry, which has an aging fleet in need of replacement parts that may no longer be available in the future. “It might be a good time to make a transition,” Dale said.

Upon FAA approval, De Reyes plans to market his planes to airline companies in Alaska and Northern Canada. He eventually hopes to assemble the aircraft in Alaska, to offset the high cost of barging the finished product from California.

As for this episode of Frontiers…

It could all be just “pie in the sky” or a glimpse into the future of aviation in Alaska. It’s not implausible, when you consider the past.

From skis designed to land on glaciers to collision avoidance systems, the state has a rich history as a proving ground for new applications of technology in the aviation industry.

The FAA has told us the partnership one of the more promising autonomous aircraft projects on the horizon.

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