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Green light for pilotless flying

When the aircraft belly provides a boost

A startup company in the USA wants to conquer the air freight market with an already familiar yet innovative concept. What’s smart about it: the unusual shape of the airplanes will offer more space for cargo – and this without a crew. Whether the industry will be turned upside down by this “blended wing body” still remains to be seen, however it will certainly draw a lot of interest and some investors are already convinced by the idea. We’ll take a closer look at the so-called “flying wings,” their German predecessors in World War II and the new blended wing system called “Natilus”.

“Flying wings” refer to aircraft that are designed without a horizontal or vertical tail. This design differs sharply from the “conventional” approach that we’re all familiar with, the “tube with wings”. Instead of using this familiar fuselage cross section, the actual flying wing carries all the important components such as propulsion, landing gear, fuel, freight and crew inside the wing itself.

The fuselage helps with the lift-off

Another subcategory called the blended wing body (BWB) represents a slightly modified aircraft concept. It features a flattened, aerodynamically shaped fuselage that can be clearly distinguished from the wings, even as it smoothly merges into the wing shape. The fuselage plays a relevant role in the lift of the aircraft. But that isn’t the only advantage: the concept also promises better aerodynamics and – combined with the advantageous lift – a more efficient operation. At a time when high energy costs and the desire to reduce CO₂ emissions are in the spotlight, the fuel savings are anything but negligible.

Alleged miracle weapon of the Third Reich

In 1910, the legendary aircraft designer Hugo Junkers already patented this design in Germany. Other countries also worked on the concept between the world wars. During World War II, the development of this aircraft type was considerably accelerated, resulting in the creation of the Horten H IX in Germany. During the last days of the war, work on this, even by contemporary standards, futuristic aircraft was proceeding at a frantic pace. The first test flights claimed that the aircraft had great flight characteristics and proved the feasibility of the flying wing.

The Allies took over these concepts directly after the end of the war and several test aircraft were built in this configuration. With the Northrop YB-35 and its further development Northrop YB-49, the USA developed its own “Horten copies” after the end of the war. However, until the launch of the enigmatic Northrop B-2, the standalone flying wing never really became ready for production. The B-2 bomber presented in the early 1990s continues to be a fascinating aircraft to this date: a huge black wing that is also undetectable by radar. As is so often the case, the military is the driver of these new technologies, but now a U.S. company aims to get a civil variant market-ready.

A startup wants to move freight

While Russia is also currently researching this aircraft format and Airbus has presented a design for a related hydrogen-powered aircraft, the startup Natilus now wants to hit the ground running and is specifically planning to build pilotless freight carriers. It would also be possible to construct passenger aircraft in a flying wing configuration, but there is one drawback: the unavailable – or at least severely limited – option of installing side windows for the passengers. Natilus is turning this “weakness” into a strength and thus utilizing the advantages for cargo transport.

It is planning several aircraft models, but first it wants to start “small”: The first model, called “3.8T”, in which the wings are most distinctly separated from the fuselage, will have a maximum starting weight of 8.6 tons and a flying capacity of up to 1,600 kilometers. The aircraft can handle cargo with a total weight of up to 3,855 kilograms, which explains the model’s name.

The “Natilus 3.8T” in full effect

Highly economical and even autonomous

If this operation proves successful (and the business develops accordingly), larger variants called 60T, 100T and 130T are planned in the future. For comparison: 130 tons of payload would be about as much as a modern Boeing 747-8F can currently transport and 20 tons less than the An-124 can fit in its hold. Thanks to the above-mentioned design advantages and use of state-of-the-art composites, the Natilus aircraft are expected to offer about 60 percent more cargo volume than conventional airplanes – and this with the same dead weight. The startup also projects that the total cost of ownership and CO₂ emissions will be reduced by 50 percent.

Another revolutionary innovation: the aircraft are expected to fly autonomously with autopilot software, but will be monitored by a human pilot at a control center who can oversee up to three machines at a time and intervene if needed. So in a way, these can be considered drones.

Feeder services to start

The operation area is clearly defined at the start: the company sees the 3.8T as a kind of “feeder” freighter that focuses on connecting regional niche markets to a larger supply chain. The aircraft could improve the connection to some regions in Africa, for example, or provide better access to small island states. Natilus also plans to design the aircraft so they don’t need long runways and can also take off from unpaved tracks.

They could also be used in areas where other infrastructure is in poor shape due to the geographical conditions. Here an aircraft would only need a few hours to cover a distance which would take a truck several days.

Will it be ready in 2025?

So far, Natilus doesn’t have much more to show than a promising concept and computer visualizations. There is no prototype yet – this is expected to follow in 2023 and complete the first test flights. Natilus plans to start delivering aircraft to its air freight customers in 2025. According to the company, it already has advance orders in the amount of more than 6 billion US dollars for the delivery of over 440 aircraft. A recent market report estimating the potential for autonomous cargo aircraft at more than 280 billion US dollars shows that this is not entirely groundless.

Aleksey Matyushev, founder and CEO of Natilus, presents his calculation as follows: “today there are only two options for transporting cargo internationally: by plane or by ship. The difference between the cost and time required for these two types of transport is dramatic. At this time, sea freight is 13 times cheaper than air freight, but takes 50 times longer to deliver. Our company intends to revolutionize the industry by offering the reliability of air freight with an affordable cost reduction of 60 percent, which makes air freight transport significantly more competitive.”

Soon we will see whether this calculation works out. We are definitely keeping our fingers crossed for this exciting project and already look forward to spotting the “pizza slices” in the sky...