Richmond firm backed by VC Tim Draper plans to fly test versions of giant amphibious cargo drone over San Pablo Bay this summer

What may be a revolution in goods transport will be on show later this year, flying over San Pablo Bay north of San Francisco — if all goes according to a Richmond startup’s plan.

The 30-foot cargo drones winging over the water will be prototypes of a much bigger unmanned, amphibious aircraft that the company envisions as an important new element of global supply chains.

The intended end product for Natilus is a cargo drone the size of a jetliner that takes off and lands on water, carrying goods from port to port.

To keep down the regulatory burden, and avoid the need for infrastructure such as airports, the drones would fly over uninhabited ocean areas and below Federal Aviation Administration-controlled airspace. They’d land 12 miles from a port and be piloted in remotely, according to the company.

Natilus claims its planned cargo drone, built using carbon fiber composites, would cost $20 million, less than a tenth of the cost of a passenger jetliner.

Natilus prototype cargo drone (courtesy of Natilus)

To fly 200,000 pounds of goods from Los Angeles to Shanghai by Natilus’ drone would take 30 hours and cost $130,000, compared to 11 hours in a Boeing 747 cargo jet at double the cost, according to the firm.

Sending those goods by sea would cost less than half the price as flying them in the drone, but according to Natilus would take three weeks instead of 30 hours.

Cost savings come from the use of supplemental electric engines to reduce fuel consumption, and the elimination of on-board-labor costs, according to the company.

Prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper has invested $750,000 in the startup.

“Natilus presents an extraordinary opportunity in distribution of goods and services without the friction and costs associated with keeping people alive on airplanes,” Draper said by email. “The team is a good group of hardworking engineers, and we hope to see a great industry develop in low-cost air delivery.”

After the prototype testing, Natilus plans to produce an 80-foot drone capable of carrying 40,000 pounds, which will start flying cargo from Los Angeles to Hawaii in 2019. Then comes the 140-foot model that can carry 200,000 pounds, with flights to China starting in 2020, the company said.


Top photo: Richmond company Natilus’ planned cargo drone (courtesy of Natilus)


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