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Tuesday, Jan 31, 2023
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Anywhere Drone

In about a month, Sabrewing Aircraft Co. Inc. will roll out its air cargo drone called the Rhaegal. The Camarillo aviation company will begin flight testing of the aircraft at Edwards Air Force base in the Antelope Valley, followed by additional testing in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. Ed De Reyes, chief executive and co-founder of Sabrewing, said that Rhaegal, a vertical takeoff and landing unmanned aircraft, will be able to get airborne from anywhere, whether from the top of a parking garage or a 10-yard by 10-yard plot in a dense remote forest. “There are few restrictions that you can put on this aircraft,” Reyes said. “It was designed specifically to go anywhere.” The Rhaegal is powered by a turbo-electric drivetrain that is capable of taking off and landing vertically in mud, snow, ice, deep sand or unimproved ground. It is piloted remotely for commercial uses and is fully autonomous for military uses. Certification of the Rhaegal by the Federal Aviation Administration is planned for 2023. The turbine engine produces electric power from a generator that then pushes the power to the fans at each corner of the aircraft. During takeoff and landing, the fans provide lift for the aircraft. In flight, the wings provide the lift and fans provide the thrust to propel it through the air. Even with the certification still several years off, Sabrewing has an order book valued at about $51 million from both military and commercial customers. The military version of Rhaegal has electronics and other features not available on the commercial version. Otherwise, the performance, distance, range and speed of the aircraft is the same for both versions, Reyes said. “Civilian aircraft are not required to go to places where there would be potshots taken at it, so we’ve put a few other things on the aircraft to make it more suited for a military mission,” he explained. Michael Blades, vice president for Aerospace, Defense and Security with Frost & Sullivan Inc., a market research firm in Santa Clara, said that Sabrewing’s use of drones to deliver cargo is a better market entry point than using them as air taxis to transport people or packages to a person’s home. “From an urban air mobility point of view, I think that middle mile deliveries are going to happen much quicker than last mile,” Blades said in an interview with the Business Journal. “It is an easier problem to solve.” While last mile deliveries might be pushed by delivery giants United Parcel Service Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and FedEx Corp., it is not known how big the market is actually going to be. The return on investment in a drone that handles taking packages from an airport to a distribution center or warehouse is likely to happen sooner, he added. “It is an interesting play on the air mobility market that isn’t getting as much attention as the last mile because it doesn’t have the cool factor,” Blades said. Flight-tested personnel Sabrewing was started in 2016 by Reyes and his business partner, Oliver Garrow, who serves as chief technology officer. Reyes is a retired U.S. Air Force major who served as a test pilot and with flight test engineering. He has worked as a test pilot with such companies as McDonnell Douglas, Cobalt Aircraft and Moller International Inc. For Northrop Grumman Corp., he was a consulting flight test engineer for the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft. “All my adult life, I have been involved with aircraft testing, certification and design,” Reyes said. Garrow has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from a university in France. He has built his own airplanes and Reyes described him as being very good at coming up with answers to engineering problems. “His solutions are very elegant and innovative yet very serviceable,” Reyes added. The two of them started work on a manned VTOL aircraft until prodded by potential investors. Reyes said he went to the FAA to ask what would be needed to certify such an aircraft. The FAA’s response was to ask him why he didn’t do a cargo plane instead “Finally, I went back to Oliver and said let’s do cargo,” Reyes said. “Cargo is really more of the low-hanging fruit, but it has a much greater impact on society than urban air mobility.” After all, he continued, a lot of products that people use are brought in by cargo planes. “So many of the things we touch throughout the day is air cargo stuff,” Reyes added. “That’s one of the reasons why we think air cargo is the way to go.” However, Blades pointed out there were other aviation companies producing aircraft to compete with Sabrewing. For instance, Elroy Air in San Francisco is developing a drone for commercial and military uses capable of carrying payloads of 250 to 500 pounds. Bell Textron Inc., in Fort Worth, Texas, completed over the summer the first successful test flight of its autonomous pod transport. Test flights are continuing on the vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that can reach speeds of more than 100 miles per hour and has a baseline payload capability of 70 pounds. And Yates Electrospace Corp., in Aliso Viejo, announced this month signing a development contract with the U.S. Special Operations Command for its Silent Arrow autonomous aircraft, capable of carrying up to one ton of supplies for resupplying tactical teams within a hostile environment, resupplying forward operating bases and delivering critical humanitarian aid and disaster relief without the need to land. The Rhaegal, by comparison, can deliver a payload of up to 1,000 pounds over a distance of 1000 nautical miles with a cruise speed of 180 knots. It has a wingspan of 45 feet with a 30-foot long fuselage. With the wings folded, the aircraft is about 12-feet wide and can fit under the wings of a Cessna Caravan or SkyCourier aircraft, Reyes said. “We can store our aircraft one under each one of the wings and save on having to build a new hangar to store the aircraft,” he added. While an exact cost for the Rhaegal has not been determined, Reyes said it would fall in between the $3 million cost of the Caravan and the $5.5 million price tag for the SkyCourier, which is still under development. Venture funding The biggest challenge Sabrewing has faced so far is adequate capital. “Ninety percent of my time has been spent trying to make sure that we have a steady supply of funding,” Reyes said. “Everything else – the certification, the design, the building – we already had experience with.” When Sabrewing started three years ago, there were urban air mobility companies that started to get all the available financing. Fortunately, Reyes said, the company was able to get some seed money from venture capitalists. These investors in doing their due diligence agreed with Reyes that air cargo was the better market. In January 2018, the company raised just less than $1 million in angel funding from investors that included the Drone Fund. Early this year, it received an additional $1.8 million from the Drone Fund, Idaten Fund plus other backers. A series A round of financing is expected next year. Kotaro Chiba, general partner and co-founder of the Drone Fund, said that a shortage of pilots globally and of truck drivers in Japan makes Sabrewing’s air cargo model a good proposition. “Sabrewing’s product as such is a semi-autonomous, remotely-piloted large cargo drone that will solve these critical issues, and the company has the potential to form a new transportation network using large drones,” Chiba said in a statement. The Drone Fund, in Tokyo, was created by investors to encourage drone startups. Because of the interest of the fund and other Japanese investors – Idaten is also based in Tokyo – Sabrewing has opened an office in that country. Air dragons So what about that name, the Rhaegal? Its origins are English, and it is the name of a dragon in “Game of Thrones.” All of Sabrewing’s aircraft will be named for dragons. Along with Rhaegal there is Draco, a demonstrator air vehicle; and Wyvern, a follow up model once Rhaegal is certified. “Wyvern is much bigger; it has a much larger wingspan and a much heavier payload,” Reyes said. Even the company’s R&D and manufacturing area at the airport in Hayward and a lab in Mountain View follows on that theme and is called Dragonworks. To get certification for Rhaegal, the test flights will start at Edwards Air Force base north of Lancaster. “Once we have tested in that environment, we’ll almost immediately move it to a more inhospitable environment in comparison,” Reyes said. “We’ll be testing in the middle of the Bering Sea off Alaska at a little island called St. Paul.” Blades, of Frost & Sullivan, said if testing takes place in an area where there is minimal interference that is good to show the aircraft can operate in specific conditions. “It is a great opportunity for them to test their technologies and procedures,” Blades said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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