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Drone On: Flexport Eyes Autonomous Air Freight

Digital freight forwarder Flexport Inc. already turned heads with its $935 million Series E. Now it’s betting on technology around autonomy in air freight.

The San Francisco company was one of several named in an announcement by autonomous aircraft maker Natilus Inc. that confirmed it has more than $6 billion in pre-orders. The purchase commitments total over 440 aircraft for Volatus Aerospace, Astral Aviation, Aurora International, Dymond and Flexport, among other companies.

Flexport’s letter of intent is for two of Natilus’ 100Ts and also includes an option to buy a third, according to Natilus.

The 100T is one of four models Natilus is making. The company’s offering ranges from an eight-ton short-haul aircraft to a 130-ton long-range aircraft.

“Natilus is one of Flexport’s latest investments. The letter of intent is part of that investment. As we work to build a true tech-enabled ecosystem, we’ll continue to support innovation in the industry through investments in promising tech companies focused on solving the biggest problems in global trade,” Flexport said in a statement to Sourcing Journal on Friday.

Natilus, which was founded in 2016, touts its aircraft’s triangular shape as helping increase cargo volume by 60 percent and also said its technology will slash the cost of moving goods by air while slicing carbon emissions in half.

The technology aims to go up against what ocean carriers offer shippers.

“Today, there are only two ways to move cargo internationally: by air and by sea,” Natilus CEO and co-founder Aleksey Matyushev said in a statement. “The difference between the cost and time of these two modes of transportation is dramatic. Sea freight is currently 13 times less expensive than air freight, but 50 times slower in delivery.”

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The CEO went on to say Natilus’ autonomous aircraft aim to offer “the timeliness of air freight at an affordable cost reduction of 60 percent.”

The San Diego-based company’s technology is still relatively new with the first full-scale aircraft prototype expected to take its first flight next year.

Natilus’s autonomous aircraft would bolster Flexport’s activities in air freight.

Flexport currently has a charter agreement with Atlas Air Inc. and said last month it was expanding that partnership with the addition of a third Boeing 747-400 aircraft to its fleet. The aircraft is expected sometime in September.

The partnership with Atlas gives Flexport air service from Asia to Los Angeles and Miami. Service from Asia to Chicago is expected to be added this year.

Flexport executive vice president and global head of airfreight Neel Jones Shah said at the time of the expanded agreement with Atlas that the additional aircraft would help shippers “build more flexible and resilient supply chains.”

For Flexport, the advance purchase from Natilus pushes forward its tech-agnostic investment strategy as it continues to scale and attract the attention of investors with some $2.2 billion raised to date.

Previous investments have included battery electric cargo ship maker Fleetzero and Inspectorio, a risk management software company catering to retailers, manufacturers and suppliers. Last week New York-based Leaf Logistics Inc. closed on a $37 million Series B in which Flexport participated. Leaf pools the data of shippers and carriers to create efficiencies in transport by truck.

In November, Flexport linked with small business lender On Deck for an accelerator program called ODX Flexport that has a goal of investing in 60 to 80 startups over the next two years.

Flexport said in a previous statement to Sourcing Journal, following news of its Series E,  that future investments the company makes not only consider “current challenges, but those down the road, and how we can best support making global trade easier for everyone.”