An ambitious project to develop a 600t uncrewed cargo aircraft has been bolstered by initial approaches from a number of high-profile logistics and e-commerce businesses but is also keen to offer a military variant to the market.

In addition, UK-based Droneliner believes the current disruption being experienced by the sea freight industry offers a clear reminder of the need to develop future alternatives in order to build supply chain resilience.

DL350 Military-c-Droneliner

Source: Droneliner

Droneliner sees cargo aircraft fulfilling multiple military missions

Droneliner broke cover in September last year, disclosing a pair of conceptual cargo aircraft – the 200t-payload DL200 and 350t-payload DL350 – that it believes could enter service in the coming decades if the right backing can be found.

Those aircraft would, for the first time, be able to carry standard-dimension ISO shipping containers, allowing the air freight industry – in theory at least – to better compete against the volume advantage of large container vessels.

However, the scale of the project will require significant financial muscle behind it if either of Droneliner’s aircraft are ever to see the light of day.

Mike Debens, Droneliner director and design coordinator, says the company has been heartened by initial approaches from some of the biggest names in the industry, including DHL, Amazon’s Prime Air unit and an undisclosed fashion retailer.

“They are all looking for an alternative to the status quo – Droneliner is the first thing that comes anywhere near what they need for the future,” he says.

“It’s almost too big a project for a company like ours to initiate, but the world is coming to us.”

In the meantime, Droneliner is also keen to tout the military potential of its aircraft, citing the wide range of missions that could be performed.

“When we first started Droneliner we wanted something that both the military and civilian worlds could use,” says Debens. “The development is so expensive that unless we can sell it to both markets, we can’t make sense of the costs.”

While the DL350 would offer a payload almost fives times as large as that of the Boeing C-17 strategic transport and would be capable of carrying outsized loads, additional roles could include air-to-air refuelling, airborne early warning and control, or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

In addition, given the DL350’s size, Droneliner sees potential for the jet to operate as a ‘mothership’, deploying and refuelling swarms of uncrewed air vehicles to broaden its sensor reach or self-defence potential. The design is also sufficiently adaptable to permit a piloted version of the aircraft, it says.

Droneliner is keen to present its concept to the US Air Force – the only military with sufficiently deep pockets, it believes – and is in initial contact with advanced flight-control developer Reliable Robotics, a company already working with the service to demonstrate the potential of autonomous flight technologies.