A Richmond, California-based startup company recently announced plans to test a prototype delivery drone—hardly a new idea in itself. But Natilus is no small parcel service. Natilus drones would be the size of jumbo jets, and would carry hundreds of thousands of pounds of cargo across the Pacific Ocean.
While many drones are designed to basic specifications and only find their purpose later, Natilus is being built for a particular niche market. Today there are only two trans-oceanic shipping methods: Airplanes, which are very fast but very expensive, and ships, which are slow but cost pennies on the dollar by comparison. Natilus thinks it’s found a logistical ‘sweet spot’ that balances speed with volume and weight of cargo with cost; the drones they hope to build could carry up to 200,000 pounds of cargo per flight.
The company hopes to carve a lucrative new niche from the cargo markets: Shipping time-sensitive freight that isn’t valuable enough to fly on cargo airplanes, but is more valuable than much of what’s shipped by sea. Vegetables and other consumables, basic electronic components, vehicles, pharmaceuticals and other products could fit the description, leaving ocean shipping for bulkier and cheaper goods like oil or clothing, and leaving today’s cargo airplanes carrying high-value goods like sushi-grade fish or high-end cars. Even a small fraction of the global shipping market could be extremely lucrative for Natilus.
The drones, of course, would not require pilots or crew, and they would launch and land on water, away from controlled airspace, avoiding the need for landing slots at busy airports and compliance with expensive and time-consuming regulations.
The company intends to launch a small prototype drone this summer, backed by $750,000 in venture capital from Silicon Valley’s Draper Funding and with FAA approval already in hand. The prototype is about 70 percent complete, says Aleksey Matyushev, the CEO and one of four co-founders of Natilus.
Will it all work? We’ll find out this summer. And though Natilus may ultimately not be the company that captues some of the global shipping market, sooner or later someone will.