Natilus and Zeroavia team up on hydrogen-powered blended wing aircraft
The blended-wing Natilus Kona aircraft, which is now flying in quarter-scale testing in California, is set to have a zero-emissions variant thanks to a partnership with Zeroavia, which will provide a 600 kW hydrogen-electric powertrain option.
The ZA-600 powertrain is already in testing. It's the one Zeroavia has been testing on one side of a 19-seat Dornier 228 – the largest hydrogen-powered aircraft ever to fly when it first took off. Zeroavia's goal is to have it fully packaged up, certified and powering clean commercial flights by 2025.
The partnership with Natilus makes sense; blended-wing aircraft designs by their very nature offer extended space in the fuselage, and hydrogen powertrains might be significantly lighter than batteries for clean flights, but they do tend to take up an annoying amount of space that's harder to find in a traditional tube with wings shape.
The Kona demonstrator is slated to be the world's largest commercial UAV. It's currently under construction at full scale, with an 85 ft (26 m) wingspan, and expected to fly in 2024. As a remotely piloted cargo drone, it's designed to operate from runways as short as 800 m (2,625 feet), and carry an impressive 3.8 tons of payload up to 1,035 miles (1,667 km) in a hop when powered by regular combustion engines.
With its huge internal capacity and lift-generating body shape, Natilus is positioning this machine as a radically cheaper way to fly cargo short distances, carrying 60% more cargo than a similarly sized conventional aircraft, and thus dropping both costs and cargo emissions per pound of cargo by about half.
The companies are yet to comment on what effect the clean hydrogen powertrain will have on the Kona's range and cargo capacity. Zeroavia's Dornier 228 project is only projected to fly about half as far as a regular combustion plane, for the sake of comparison, so Natilus will have to decide whether it wants to keep the Kona's full cargo capacity and a lower range, or how much cargo space it's willing to sacrifice for longer-range zero-emissions flights.
This is just the first step for the partnership, though. Natilus has much grander plans in mind, with Alisio and Nordes designs in the pipeline capable of carrying 60 and 100 tons of cargo respectively, and over intercontinental distances.
Zeroavia, for its part, is working on a 2.5 MW hydrogen powertrain, expected to launch in 2026, as well as examining the potential of cryogenic liquid hydrogen systems that promise to increase range and reduce the space requirements for the fuel load once the bugs are ironed out.
Exciting stuff! See the quarter-scale Kona in test flights in the video below.
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