PteroDynamics POV

December 19, 2023

The Future of Commercial Maritime Resupply 

POV by Rich Brasel, CRO

A former DoD Major Program Manager and Naval aviator, Rich is an experienced business development professional in the aviation industry. He has over 20 years of experience developing, testing, and fielding unmanned aerial systems (UAS), was a U.S. Navy test pilot, and served as the Commanding Officer of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School.

Air taxis and package deliveries dominate the headlines when it comes to unmanned aerial systems (UAS). However, the latest advances in automated vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) UAS technology are set to disrupt a key part of the global economy: maritime logistics and resupply.

PteroDynamics’ successful demonstration in October of the advanced capabilities of its autonomous Transwing® VTOL UAS aircraft from the deck of the USNS Burlington offers a clear view into the future of autonomous maritime logistics beyond military applications. 

Every year, commercial shipping and energy companies spend millions of dollars on crewed helicopters and boats to deliver essential cargo including critical repair parts, software and hardware upgrades, test samples, medicine, and even bills of lading to tens of thousands of offshore oil and gas rigs, wind farms, and sea-going cargo vessels waiting to offload goods in port. 

Operational efficiency in the energy and global shipping sectors is an important yet expensive endeavor. Unplanned downtime in offshore oil and gas production results in losses amounting to $38 - $88 million annually, with an industry average of 27 days of downtime each year, according to GE’s Kimberlite report.1 Maintenance costs for wind turbines – which fail at least once annually – range from 1.5% to 2% of the original capital expenditure per annum.2 Nearly 100,000 commercial vessels greater than 100 gross tons ply the world’s oceans, making 4.4 million port calls per year.3 Though not as costly as helicopter flights, “hot shot” boat excursions to cargo vessels – even if needed just for required paperwork to dock in port – are difficult to schedule and cost an average of $3,000. 

Five Requirements That Will Make Maritime Resupply via Drones a Reality

Maritime resupply and logistics missions to and from cargo ships and offshore oil rigs by fleets of less expensive, highly automated VTOL UAS aircraft may not be too far off in the future. But making these missions a feasible reality requires some game-changing performance capabilities: 

  1. Superior VTOL performance in austere environmental conditions at sea
  2. Range and endurance that surpass the capabilities of current VTOL designs 
  3. Speed to reach remote locations quickly
  4. Safe, highly automated operations
  5. Significant reductions in cost

In short, these requirements call for autonomous UAS aircraft with superb VTOL capabilities that perform like a great fixed-wing aircraft – a perfect description for PteroDynamics’ Transwing.

What Makes the Transwing Different

What makes the Transwing revolutionary and so well suited to maritime resupply missions is a design that overcomes limitations inherent in other VTOL aircraft by combining the speed, range, and endurance of fixed-wing aircraft with superior VTOL performance in an efficient, highly automated platform.

The Transwing's folded wing configuration enables a high degree of controllability, providing excellent gust tolerance and the ability to take off and land in turbulent winds and high sea states. The aircraft unfolds its wings and transitions to a highly efficient fixed-wing aircraft for horizontal flight.

The design eliminates the extra weight and drag of multiple additional propulsors and support structures. This gives the Transwing greater range and endurance, plus the ability to fly at high speeds to reach remote locations without runways. Its folding wings mean it requires a small operational ground footprint and less space for easy storage – very important features when operating from oil rigs, offshore wind farms, or cargo vessels. 

Sea Trials 

The Transwing’s successful autonomous launch and recovery flights took place during the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet Hybrid Fleet Campaign  Event (HFCE), which was designed as a proving ground for integrating emerging unmanned systems into Naval operations. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Lisa Franchetti and other representatives from U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy, the Royal Australian Navy, the Royal Netherlands Navy, and the Swedish Navy were present to see for themselves the capabilities from industry partners that could support the fleet. 

These exercise flights enabled us to evaluate the operational capabilities of the Transwing and collect valuable performance data in a real-world operational environment at sea. This information will accelerate the innovative work we are doing, and our close ongoing collaboration with leading industry partners like Allocor.techFlightHouse Engineering , and Applied Navigation enable us to rapidly design, build, and test new solutions.

Unlocking Greater Value with UAS Maritime Logistics 

As the technology matures, automated UAS aircraft like the Transwing can change the economics of maritime logistics and resupply for offshore oil and gas, offshore wind farms, and commercial shipping. Transwing VTOL aircraft have the range to deliver payloads farther out to sea in international waters, and they can provide more certainty in scheduling deliveries – and at a much lower cost than manned delivery alternatives. 

[1] GE Oil & Gas. The impact of Digital on Unplanned Downtime: An offshore Oil and Gas Perspective. Accessed November 2023. 

[2] Wind Measurement International. Operational and Maintenance Costs for Wind Turbines. Accessed November 2023.

[3] United Nations. Review of Maritime Transport 2000. Accessed October 2023.

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