Sabrewing Aircraft Co. has plans to revolutionize the air cargo industry, starting with Alaska.
The team behind the Camarillo, Calif. -based startup isn't trying to replace the venerable Boeing 747, which has helped Anchorage become one of the busiest cargo hubs on Earth, at least not yet. And they aren't trying to beat Amazon in realizing the concept of door-to-door deliveries via drone.
Rather, Sabrewing's business model falls in-between: it is built on regional cargo deliveries with the company's large unmanned aircraft.
Co-founder and CEO Ed De Reyes said the concept of a large cargo-carrying unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly referred to as a UAV, is a byproduct of the "nascent dream" that is the flying car.
A former Air Force test pilot with more than 40 years of aviation experience, De Reyes has flown for numerous aircraft manufacturers including McDonnell Douglas and Boeing.
He said that while he is also engulfed in the "flying car craze," the infrastructure needed to support a wholly new form of transportation for the general public means flying cars are many years if not decades away from becoming a common reality.
"I thought, there needs to be another solution, a solution that's much closer at hand and that's how the thought of cargo came about, because cargo — there's still a lot of requirements that are placed on air cargo carriers and air cargo manufacturers — but it's a little bit lower hanging fruit, so to speak, from the fact that we're not flying passengers," De Reyes said in an interview.
"What is it that we can do now? What are we capable of doing now and let's build on that instead of trying to build a system that's going to rely on massive amounts of, at this time, nonexistent infrastructure."
The ability to take off and land vertically is integral to the company's model. It is named after Sabrewing hummingbirds, a Central American subspecies that can do just that. The company's flight testers wear an insignia of a hummingbird while at work, De Reyes noted.
"It goes back to that dream that humans have had since the beginning of time of being able to take off and land anywhere on Earth and fly to another location. The most remote locations on Earth would be accessible because you'd be able to get there by air," he said.
Sabrewing began to take shape in the summer of 2016 and has advanced quickly since then.
The company is developing three UAVs of different sizes off of a single platform design. The smallest, dubbed the Rhaegal after a dragon from the popular television series "Game of Thrones," is intended as a battlefield resupply vehicle for the U.S. military.
With foldable wings spanning 20 feet when deployed, the Rhaegal will be able to fly up to 1,000 nautical miles with a payload of about 800 pounds. The key difference between the Rhaegal and Sabrewing's other aircraft is it will fly autonomously, according to De Reyes.
The midsized Draco-2, with a wingspan of 38 feet, is the company's test vehicle, for which De Reyes has big plans.
"We hope that one day, maybe it'll go into the Smithsonian, we don't know, but it'll never go into production," he said.
"The Orteig Prize, when it came about, was the first person to fly the Atlantic, you know; New York to Paris wins the Orteig Prize and that's what's going to happen with the Pacific Drone Challenge. The first person to fly the Pacific from Japan to the (contiguous) U.S. is going to win," De Reyes said.
The open-ended competition currently lacks a prize — New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig in 1919 offered $25,000 for the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight — but is really about demonstrating the capability of UAV technology, according to De Reyes.
"The ability to show our customers that we can do this and do it safely and do it repeatedly is really the goal here. We'd have to do this anyway for certification," he said regarding the Pacific Drone Challenge.
Sabrewing is aiming to make its challenge flight late next year, presuming the Draco's flight tests go well. The company also has a scaled-down wind tunnel version that has performed well so far.
Aimed at Alaska
Named after another dragon, the Wyvern is what Sabrewing hopes Alaskans will eventually be very familiar with.
With a 60-foot wingspan, it is the largest of the company's UAVs. Its 4,400-pound payload, 1,600-mile range and 22,000-foot ceiling are comparable to that of the popular Cessna 208 Caravan that carries cargo and passengers all over Alaska every day.
"(The Wyvern) was actually designed to be able to go from Anchorage to Barrow, discharge cargo and turn around and come back," De Reyes said, while doing it all in weather conditions that would keep other aircraft grounded.
He stressed that the Wyvern is not a means to compete with or replace traditional air cargo carriers. Instead, those carriers are Sabrewing's target customers. As an aircraft manufacturing company, Sabrewing is intent on helping them grow their businesses by opening up new markets.
Sabrewing's aircraft are built on a composite airframe with a gas-electric hybrid power system that drives four electric motors, each turning a variable-position fan.
While a hybrid system, the Sabrewing powertrain does not alternate between power sources in the way the popular Toyota Prius hybrid car does. Instead, a light, super-quick response rotary engine generates the power that is converted into electricity by the four motors in real-time.
"There is a conversion loss, but it really is only apparent at takeoff and landing," when the most power is needed, De Reyes said.
There are no batteries in the system, he added, because the capabilities of the engine don't necessitate them and battery technology is not advanced enough to store sufficient energy without greatly sacrificing payload capacity. Sabrewing officials investigated dozens of battery options before determining a viable option doesn't yet exist, according to De Reyes.
"The lighter you make the air vehicle the more cargo you can carry," he said. "You're being paid for every single pound that goes onto a cargo aircraft."
The rotary engine can be fueled either with Jet A fuel or ultra-low sulfur diesel.
The Wyvern will be equipped with three independent "detect-and-avoid" systems to fly safely in airspace occupied by more traditional aircraft, or other Wyverns, for that matter.
De Reyes said the detect-and-avoid mechanisms were among the first things the company settled on when starting to develop its aircraft. An automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, or ADS-B, system common in modern aircraft will be the first, long-range instrument for detecting other aircraft. A camera system developed by Iris Automation, which develops avoidance systems for UAVs, will back up the ADS-B.
The camera system well help the Wyvern pilot see smaller objects when flying at altitudes below 18,000 feet and in favorable visual flight rules, or VFR, weather conditions, according to De Reyes.
Finally, a light detection and ranging, or LiDAR, system by Attollo Engineering, another Camarillo, Cali., company, which can detect objects as small as a hummingbird out to 1,000 feet, will be the last line of defense.
"All those will send a signal back to the autopilot that will allow the autopilot to autonomously avoid anything that's out there," De Reyes said.
"It'll certainly avoid a goose or a Piper J-3 Cub that has no radio or transponder onboard so all those things that could possibly get by one won't get by the other."
He said Sabrewing is exploring the possibility of adding a fourth detect-and-avoid system as well.
The aircraft will also have cameras onboard primarily for takeoff and landing.
And while the aircraft will have the ability to avoid potential hazards autonomously, it won't be for lack of a pilot.
Each flight will be operated by a pilot in a control room with a computer display that would resemble a simulator in most cases, but will amount to the cockpit of a Sabrewing UAV.
De Reyes said the pilot will have the same altimeters, turn and bank indicators, vertical velocity indicators and other instruments and gauges afforded traditional pilots — even a virtual display of the terrain below the aircraft, if they so choose.
And because it's basically a flight simulator, all pilot certifications to fly the Wyvern will be conducted in a simulator, according to De Reyes.
"It's like being in (instrument meteorological conditions) at night. You don't really see where you're going as far as ground reference goes but the aircraft knows where it is because of the information you have in front of you," De Reyes described.
Though not yet in production, Sabrewing is targeting a base price of $2 million, possibly more, for a Wyvern, which again would be in line with the cost of a Cessna Caravan at the lower end.
Despite the comparisons, De Reyes insisted his company is not in competition with Cessna, a message he has emphasized to Cessna representatives at industry conferences.
"We can't carry people, the Caravan can. That's one of the things a Caravan does very, very well actually in remote places. The Caravan can carry infinitely more people than we can," he commented, noting it will likely be decades before the Federal Aviation Administration approves unmanned passenger flights, if at all.
FAA regulation is one of the reasons Sabrewing turned to Alaska. The agency has made Alaska, through research done at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a primary testing ground for small UAVs.
De Reyes sees the same happening with larger unmanned craft, with commercial approvals for larger craft likely within five years.
"We're going to have to show safe operations in Alaska and show that we can deliver cargo safely in Alaska before they ever allow it in the Lower 48 and most Alaska cargo carrier recognize that too," he said. "'Hey, we're going to be the testing ground for this. We're going to be so far ahead of our competition.'"
The Sabrewing team pitched their plan in May to a gathering of cargo company representatives at the Alaska Air Carriers Association annual meeting in Anchorage.
Shortly thereafter, the company was accepted as an associate member, the first UAV-focused company to be a member of the influential industry organization.
De Reyes called the response from Alaska cargo carriers "overwhelming" after the presentation, noting that one executive told him, "if you had one (Wyvern) on the ramp that you could point to I'd write you a check for it right now."
"I thought, 'Wow, that's very forward thinking,'" De Reyes said. "These are people that operated DC-3s and C46s and that kind of aircraft. They're looking at this and saying it really does open up new markets."
AACA Executive Director Jane Dale said the organization's board members look at Sabrewing's business model as simply another form of commercial aviation that is to be embraced.
"I think it's an inevitable transition; just like we're seeing in automobiles and in the military," Dale commented.
"It's another tool in the toolbox. That's the light bulb that went off at the board meeting. I think we're entering a modernization of aviation in Alaska."
Sabrewing is also a member of the Alaska Airmen Association.
Most products intended for use in Alaska are made Outside. The economics of the situation dictate it.
However, for Sabrewing, the opposite is true; and therefore the company has pegged Anchorage for its manufacturing facility.
De Reyes acknowledged that the company will pay a small premium to get parts and raw materials to Alaska, but those prices will pale in comparison to the cost and logistical challenges of staying in the Lower 48.
That's because without approval to fly a large UAV over the crowded ground and through the busy Lower 48 airspace Sabrewing would have to construct, deconstruct, ship, and reconstruct every aircraft it would send to Alaska — its primary market.
He added that western Canada, similar to Alaska in terms of geography and sparse, isolated communities, is a natural successive market opportunity.
As a result, De Reyes and his cohorts have toured facilities at Kulis Business Park across the runways from the terminals at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Merrill Field is a possibility as well.
"We're hoping to do the 'golden shovel' (groundbreaking) so to speak, by early 2020. Right after the race we hope to be able to start," De Reyes said.
Before that, Sabrewing will be back in Anchorage next March to test the Draco-2 before heading to Japan for the Pacific Drone Challenge.
"The more time that goes on the more sense it makes for us to be located in Anchorage," De Reyes said further. "I can't think of any other place in the United States that has that unique — not only position in the aircraft industry — but that unique place in unmanned cargo UAVs. It makes more sense than any other location that I can think of."
The company will look to employ about 200 people in the early years of production, he said, with the expectation they will be producing more than 100 UAVs per year based on demand for traditional, manned cargo aircraft serving remote areas.
Ideal Sabrewing employees will be ex-military service men and women with experience in electronics systems and composite materials and eventually pilots, according to De Reyes.
"People who want to remain in Alaska but are looking to continue with their aviation skill that they've picked up in the military would be great," he said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at email@example.com.