Natilus, a California-based aerospace start-up developing autonomous cargo airplanes, has successfully flown a subscale technology demonstrator for the first time. The company intends to introduce a family of remotely piloted cargo freighters featuring a unique blended-wing-body (BWB) design that will be capable of carrying more cargo than traditional airplanes of comparable size. Its initial offering will be the Kona, the smallest model in its planned fleet.
Natilus says the initial flight tests of its quarter-scale Kona demonstrator aircraft have validated the performance of the BWB design after three years of extensive wind-tunnel testing. The flights took off from a private runway in Southern California, east of San Diego. During the flights, the aircraft reached speeds of about 70 mph (110 kph), according to Natilus.
“The first flights were controlled by a remote pilot to validate 'open loop' aircraft stability without autopilot,” a Natilus spokesperson told FutureFlight. “This is a huge milestone for aviation as, previously, BWBs were unstable and had to be flown with a 'closed loop' autopilot code.” Natilus is now working to integrate its own autopilot system into the aircraft. While the company’s cargo fleet will be highly autonomous, remote pilots in ground stations will monitor all flights and can take over control of an aircraft if necessary.
With six flight tests under its belt, Natilus is now shifting its focus to the construction of a full-scale Kona technology demonstrator, which will have a wingspan of 85 feet (26 meters). “We are fully focused on completing the full-scale Kona prototype,” said Natilus co-founder and CEO Aleksey Matyushev. “Our Kona remotely piloted aircraft will be capable of carrying over 9,000 pounds (4.3 metric tons) of freight and will open new markets worldwide. The progress of Natilus in developing autonomous cargo aircraft is a game changer in the logistics industry, providing an efficient and cost-effective solution for shipping goods across oceans.”
The Kona aircraft, also called the N3.8T, is a twin-engine turboprop with a range of 900 nm and a cruising speed of 220 knots. Natilus’s flagship N130T, also known as Nordes, will be the largest model in its fleet with 143 tons of payload capacity, a range of 5,112 nm, and a cruise speed of Mach 0.85. Natilus also plans to offer two intermediate-size designs: The N100T will have a 110-ton payload capacity and a 5,400-nm range; the N60T, also known as Alisio, will have a 66-ton payload capacity and a range of up to 4,142 nm.
While a pair of pusher turboprops will power the Kona aircraft, larger Natilus models will feature two or three upper-wing-mounted ducted fans instead. The engines will run on either jet-A or sustainable aviation fuel. With its aerodynamic body and automated flight controls, Natilus says, its BWB design will produce half as much carbon emissions as traditional aircraft of the same weight while offering a 60 percent reduction in operating costs.
Several cargo carriers have already committed to adding Natilus’s aircraft to their fleet, and the company spokesperson told FutureFlight that some orders have been backed by cash deposits, although the individual did not specify who placed those deposits. Natilus's customers so far include Ameriflight, Astral Aviation, Aurora, Dymond, Volatus Aviation, Flexport, and others that have not yet been disclosed. Natilus now holds purchase agreements for more than 460 aircraft and has an order backlog worth $6.8 billion.