While the prospect of urban air mobility, or autonomous flying vehicles that transport materials or people, has captured the public’s imagination, so has the prospect that many are looking to the skies to solve our delivery and transportation needs. This prospect looks even more enticing as our urban areas become increasingly congested with ground traffic.
Much of the conversation around drone delivery has centered on transporting small consumer goods, such as food and medication; but drone delivery goes beyond just having a pizza delivered at your doorstep by drone. Drone delivery can completely shift supply chains to make them faster, more efficient, and cost-effective, particularly for cargo and freight delivery that relies on slow, often environmentally unfriendly, modes of transportation. It is here that the true financial benefit can be reaped for operators and consumers.
However, several challenges stand in the way of improving how we transport hundreds of pounds of cargo across distances more than a few city blocks; namely, the propulsion system technology that is needed to power these drones. The urban air mobility market lacks a reliable and effective propulsion system capable of moving the industry from just a dream to a reality.
Not dependable or cost-effective
Current engines on the market have long been plagued by issues regarding dependability and cost-effectiveness, which has dampened the industry’s ability to provide cargo delivery at scale. For example, electric motors with batteries, while reliable and quiet, lack the energy density needed to carry cargo of any appreciable size a meaningful distance.
A second alternative is intermittent combustion engines with AvGas or jet fuel. These have the energy density required, but have proven to be very unreliable in existing military drone applications. These platforms have well-documented systemic propulsion system failures, resulting in crash after crash. That track record will make it impossible for the FAA to ever approve drones that rely upon systems in which the prime movers are piston engines or Wankel rotary engines.
To overcome these engine hurdles, the industry needs to implement small continuous-combustion gas turbine engines that produce shaft power or electrical power, the tried and true prime movers of current manned aircraft. These turbine engines are the path forward for the urban air mobility industry to fly unmanned aircraft over populated areas.
Since typical missions of vehicles delivering cargo are through the most densely populated parts of the U.S., the need for reliable propulsion trumps every other requirement. For example, take cargo that is off-loaded at the Port of Los Angeles and needs to be transported about 50 miles across L.A. to Pasadena, or the delivery of a crate from Port Newark in New Jersey to Brooklyn, about 20 miles as the crow flies across Manhattan at rush hour. In both simple examples, the rationale for why an air-delivery option makes sense – to avoid crowded highways – is the same reason that current flawed propulsion systems will never be approved for use by regulators.
While turbine engines have been used in large commercial and military aerospace aircraft for 60 years, they have yet to be used in smaller drones because of the complex engineering required to re-imagine and redesign turbine engines at such a smaller scale.
Fortunately, there has been a breakthrough in this technology with the Monarch 5, a microturbine propulsion system – like its larger counterparts – that makes them safer and more reliable than current intermittent combustion engines.
The Monarch 5 can power both fixed-wing drones and drones that are runway independent, which take off and land vertically (VTOLs).The Monarch 5 was designed to address the current engine challenges facing the industry and provide a propulsion system capable of making cargo delivery a reality.
What sets the Monarch 5 apart is its ability to be configured either to produce thrust by directly powering a propeller, or by producing electrical power in a hybrid design by powering a generator. A Monarch engine in a hybrid power configuration enables batteries to recharge inflight.
With this propulsion technology finally available to power the urban air mobility market, cargo delivery can at long last become a reality. As partners throughout the urban air mobility ecosystem begin to integrate microturbine engine technology into their UAVs, consumers and operators should expect to see the benefit of large-scale goods being transported at a fraction of today’s current cost and time.