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Heavyweight Boeing drone could lead to military or medical mules

Joseph Flaig

A concept image of the drone in flight. A prototype has completed initial flight tests (Credit: Boeing)
A concept image of the drone in flight. A prototype has completed initial flight tests (Credit: Boeing)

A herculean new cargo drone from Boeing could pave the way for military vehicles, autonomous stretchers or disaster relief deliveries.

This week, the world’s largest aerospace company followed the lead of start-ups such as Norwegian firm Griff Aviation as it unveiled its heavy-lifting prototype drone. Designed to test autonomous and electric propulsion technology, the eight-rotor drone can reportedly carry loads of up to 227kg – 100 times more than Amazon’s Prime Air delivery service.

Engineers and technicians created the 4.6m long, 5.5m wide machine in just three months as the multinational set out to secure a place in the burgeoning “electric vertical take-off and landing” (eVTOL) market.

Heavy-lifting drones will probably find early applications in the military, said Steve Wright, avionics lecturer at the University of the West of England in Bristol, to Professional Engineering.

“One of the obvious things when you look at a drone about that size is how about a flying stretcher? If, for example, you’ve got a situation where a person’s only chance of survival is to get out of that situation into a hospital, maybe an unsafe or an uncertified flying stretcher is a better chance than bleeding to death on a battlefield or the site of an accident.”

The engineer praised the prototype’s reported payload, but said its strength raises other issues that have not yet been addressed by Boeing. “That triggers all sorts of questions in my mind about how long can they do it for, what is the endurance and the range and things like that,” he said. “But nonetheless it’s an impressive piece of engineering.”

Several other organisations are also working on “direct” competitors to Boeing’s drone, Wright added.

Boeing chief technology officer Greg Hyslop claimed the company has an opportunity to “really change air travel and transport,” while Boeing HorizonX vice-president Steve Nordlund said the prototype brings new possibilities for autonomous cargo deliveries, logistics and other transportation.

“The safe integration of unmanned aerial systems is vital to unlocking their full potential,” he added. “Boeing has an unmatched track record, regulatory know-how and a systematic approach to delivering solutions that will shape the future of autonomous flight.”

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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