Air cargo in Alaska: A pilotless future?
From mail to groceries, air cargo is the backbone of life in rural Alaska – and for the past 70 years, not much has changed in the basic technology used to haul freight to remote communities. But Sabrewing Aircraft Company hopes to revolutionize the industry.
The Camarillo, Calif. company was the buzz at the recent Alaska Air Carriers Association (AACA) convention, where it announced plans to build a heavy-duty drone to deliver air cargo across the state.
At the gathering in Anchorage Ed De Reyes, Sabrewing's CEO and founder, launched a joint venture with the St. Paul Island tribal government. Together, they will develop the Rhaegal and the Wyvern. The autonomous aircraft are named after dragons in the popular TV series "Game of Thrones."
The Rhaegal, about as big as a large pickup truck, is designed to carry about 800 pounds of cargo. De Reyes says the larger Wyvern is comparable in size to a FedEx delivery truck and would carry more than 4,000 pounds. But so far, he says, only a small-scale model of the Rhaegal has actually been flown.
“If we can prove ourselves here – if we can certificate the aircraft here -- it's virtually a shoo-in for us then to operate in the Lower 48,” said De Reyes, who has been working with the St. Paul Island tribal government to use the island as a test range for the Rhaegal and the Wyvern.
De Reyes says the military has used unmanned aircraft to deliver cargo on the battlefield, so the technology is not new – but if his company is successful in certifying the Rhaegal, it would be one of the first unmanned aircraft of its kind to be used in commercial aviation.
He 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 10 planes.
De Reyes says the tribal government’s investment is worth about $43 million – and its agreement to operate the test range would be figured into the purchase price of the aircraft.
Sabrewing has also agreed to provide tribal members with training on how to conduct the testing, as well as operate and maintain the aircraft.
The company hopes to begin tests in December. If all goes as planned, the tribal government would own and operate one of the largest test ranges of its kind in North America, an asset the tribe could use in other business ventures.
“We feel strongly that this technology is going to be utilized in Alaska in the next five to 10 years,” said Patrick Baker, director of the island’s tribal government known as the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island. “Our aspirations to start a test range are becoming more real every day.”
De Reyes says St. Paul Island’s isolation, as well as its chronic fog and crosswinds, make it a good proving ground for autonomous aircraft.
The Rhaegal will be equipped with folding wings, so it can fly like a helicopter. The skin of the plane also has heating elements to prevent ice build-up and sensors to help it navigate crosswinds.
“There’s sensors in the wings, sensors in the nose. There’s sensors in the center,” De Reyes said. “It’s got an autopilot on board that is actually three autopilots.” In all, the Rhaegal has about 18 patents pending.
The tribal government says it’s worked for about seven years to position itself for an opportunity like this. It began using small drones to monitor birds, seals and reindeer on the island, which is located about 700 miles west of Anchorage in the middle of the Bering Sea.
“They started with a small drone range and realized, ‘Hey, there’s more potential there and realized it’s really more the larger drones is where they want to be,’” De Reyes said. “They’re making history here. We’ve built something, but they’re the ones that are making history.”
Jane Dale, the AACA's director, believes the Sabrewing aircraft could be a game-changer for the state’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 Federal Aviation Administration 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 them from California.
An FAA official at the AACA convention said the Sabrewing-St. Paul Island partnership is one of the more promising autonomous aircraft projects on the horizon.
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