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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.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

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