The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Cargo Industry Tests Seaplane Drones to Deliver Freight

Startup Natilus’s prototype aims to complete its first water trials, with flight tests to follow

3 min read
Photo: Natilus
Freight Flier: An employee paints a prototype cargo drone at a Natilus facility in Richmond, Calif.
Photo: Natilus

Two years after WorldWar II, billionaire Howard Hughes personally piloted his “Spruce Goose” troop transport aircraft on the first and only flight of the largest seaplane ever built. It lasted barely a minute. Now, more than 70 years later, a U.S. startup is testing a new seaplane concept—one that could evolve into huge cargo drones that fly 109 metric tons of freight across the Pacific, touch down autonomously over water, and unload at ports around the world.

The startup Natilus was founded in 2014 with a dream of building large cargo drones to deliver international freight for about half the price of piloted aircraft, and much faster than ships. In December, Natilus planned to test the water-taxiing capabilities of a small prototype drone with a 9-meter wingspan in San Francisco Bay. Waterborne testing, done under the careful watch of the Federal Aviation Administration, sets the stage for flight tests in 2018.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions

Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

Keep Reading ↓Show less