Sabrewing Aircraft Company and the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island (ACSPI), the Unangan (Aleut) Tribe of Native Alaskans, have signed an agreement valued at up to $43 million. It includes an order of up to 10 vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, the creation for an aircraft test range, and a joint venture aircraft logistics company.

The VTOL market promises strong growth over the next decade. BIS Research estimates that the global fixed-wing VTOL aircraft market was approximately $2 billion in 2017 and will reach $13.6 billion by 2028, according to a new report titled Fixed-Wing VTOL Aircraft Market, Analysis and Forecast, 2018 - 2028.

The Aleut Community, located on St. Paul and St. George, Pribilof Islands, are betting that the unmanned VTOL aircraft can help them address the challenge of delivering supplies during the unpredictable weather patterns common to that geography. Although St. George has a well-maintained runway, changeable weather conditions and directional crosswinds mean that airplanes are unable to land 80% of the time. VTOL aircraft, though, can bring in supplies without delay. Under the terms of the agreement, the ACSPI will buy a mix of the 800–pound–payload Rhaegal and the 4400–pound–payload Wyvern aircraft.

sabrewing Rendering of 800–pound–payload Rhaegal from Sabrewing

Sabrewing’ s aircraft integrates a turbo-electric system and the aircraft is operated remotely by a pilot using a keyboard and a mouse rather than a throttle, wheel, or stick. The aircraft will be tested in a new test range that was created by ACSPI following the ratification of the FAA Reauthorization Bill by Congress last fall, according to Sabrewing Aircraft.

The ACSPI is in the process of developing what will be one of the largest aircraft test areas for both manned and unmanned craft in North America, and the largest on the Bering Sea. “The SPxTR Complex has the capability of testing any aircraft over the Bering Sea – with more space and capability than any test range that I’m familiar with,” said John “Nevada” Nevadomsky, former flight test manager for Northrop Grumman and former director of the Pan Pacific UAV Test Range Complex, and now the drector of Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation for Sabrewing.

The complex is centered around St. Paul Island, is located approximately 230 miles to the north of Unalaska-Dutch Harbor and 770 miles west of Anchorage. It will provide 126,000 square miles of testing area.

The test range has been dubbed the St. Paul eXperimental Test Range (SPxTR) Complex (“Spectre Complex”). “We currently test small drones under the FAA rules on our island. Under the H.R. 302, the FAA Reauthorization Act signed in October of 2018, our community is able to establish its own test range, allowing us to serve the flight test needs of the Department of Defense and industry as well,” said Amos Philemonoff, tribal council president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island.

Sabrewing will provide all the required the test equipment, telemetry, and other equipment needed to test VTOL aircraft, as well as portable, remote operations and telemetry stations for aircraft testing. The SPxTR Complex will also provide a place for Sabrewing and other aircraft companies to conduct research and development for its aircraft. “It’s the best large UAV test range that I’ve ever seen in the 31 years that I’ve been testing and certifying aircraft,” said Ed De Reyes, CEO of Sabrewing Aircraft Company.

sabrewing2 Rendering of 800–pound–payload Rhaegal from Sabrewing

The final piece of the joint venture between Sabrewing and ACSPI includes an agreement to jointly create a corporation to provide UAV pilot training, maintenance and dispatcher training, and aircraft replacement and spare parts. The new company, which would have the benefit of being a Native American run organization, would contract jointly bid on Department of Defense and Federal contracts. “This agreement fits nicely with our plan to build and test the aircraft in Anchorage, Alaska for both commercial and DoD customers” continued De Reyes, “It’s a perfect combination of two entities: the ACSPI – who is already testing, flying and training operators of small drones and is leading from the front on modernizing their community – and us, who provide an aircraft that can not only bring much needed supplies to their community in any weather, day or night. This is a convergence of two innovative entities.”

It will also train remote operators, mechanics, and dispatchers to service the cargo aircraft that Sabrewing will build and sell or lease to commercial customers. “We’ve been discussing the possibility of using pilots trained by the University of Alaska – Anchorage to train new pilots to a Commercial/Instrument-pilot level of competency, after which we would them train them to operate our aircraft. This would help the new pilot to build hours towards an Air Transport Pilot rating – and also help alleviate the current pilot shortage as well. In discussions with the FAA, they’ve been very open to ways to train pilots to help reduce the shortage,” said De Reyes.

Their remote pilots follow all the current procedures that “on-board” pilots follow, including flying instrument approaches and taking directions from air traffic control (ATC), he added.

In addition to pushing forward the use of VTOL aircraft, this agreement offers the ASCPI an opportunity to extend employment opportunities for its 500 inhabitants beyond the traditional fishing industry. “The tribe has relied for hundreds of years on fisheries which are now negatively impacted by climate change,” said De Reyes. “The tribe realized it couldn’t be dependent on fisheries forever so it worked to diversify.” The tribe is looking at ways to extend education and technology in areas including drone pilot licensing, software development and conservation.

“When we first saw St. Paul Island, we fell in love with the quiet serenity of the location, the ability to test our aircraft in a location with hundreds of thousands of square miles of test range, and the friendly, family-like attitude of the people there. We’re looking forward to starting our testing there as soon as we’re able,” said De Reyes.

In the future, VTOL aircraft will likely be leveraged in a wide variety of ways, from bulk mail delivery to landing near disaster areas as part of recovery and relief efforts, De Reyes said. “The military is looking at it for casualty evacuation,” he added.