When you think of drone delivery, chances are you don’t picture a piano flying through the sky.

A a cup of coffee would be more appropriate. Or order chicken wings. Perhaps a recipe from your pharmacy.

The vast majority of delivery drones are not designed to carry more than a few pounds. But others, like Sabrewing’s Rhaegal drone, can carry more — a lot more.

The Oxnard, Calif.-based maker of cargo drones on Wednesday announced that the pre-production Rhaegal model was able to lift 829 pounds of payload, breaking the previous world record for “dead lift” of any commercial vertical takeoff unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

The aircraft, also known as the RG-1-A “Alpha” model, is capable of both autonomous vertical takeoff and conventional runway takeoff, designed to carry not only pounds, but tone loads. In a normal takeoff, the Rhaegal has enough thrust to carry more than 2 tons of cargo at altitudes of up to 22,000 feet and speeds of about 230 miles per hour.

However, the record flight was accomplished using a vertical takeoff, similar to how a helicopter takes off from the ground.

“This is just a fraction of what this aircraft can carry,” said Ed De Reyes, Sabrewing’s chairman and CEO. “But it proves that we can lift more cargo on our first flight than any previous cargo UAV that has ever flown.”

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Rhaegal is powered by a system called a turbo-electric powertrain, which uses electric generators to convert mechanical energy from a gas or steam turbine into electrical energy. This is a method sometimes used by warships and merchant ships.

The Rhaegal transmission is based on a helicopter engine developed by Safran that uses a turbine engine called the Ariel 2E. It can use 50% sustainable aviation fuel—a raw alternative to conventional jet fuel—and its electric generator powers the electric motors of four ducted fans.

By improving the blades, ducts and shape of the aircraft’s fans, Sabrewing was able to increase the thrust of the Alpha model by 30%. This helped lift the record payload.

“We can generate more motive power—much more efficiently—with a turbo-electric transmission and ducted fans than we can with batteries or direct turbine drive,” said Oliver Gerau, Sabrewing’s chief technology officer. “The Safran engine is currently approved to use 50% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). We expect to be one of the first aircraft manufacturers to use hydrogen when Safran completes testing of its engine in the next couple of years.”

While Safran helped produce the transmission, Sabrewing brought in several other companies to develop the Rhaegal. Leonardo Aerospace contributed avionics, Toray supplied composite materials, Garmin helped with navigation, and Attollo Engineering worked on light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors.

The aircraft also uses remote positioning technology from Spider Tracks and software developed by California State University Channel Islands and three US universities.

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A second model called the Rhaegal RG-1-B “Bravo” is currently in production, designed for first, middle and last mile delivery. Sabrewing says this design can lift 10 times more cargo than its nearest competitor and fly five times further.

Bravo, according to Sabrewing, is also the only UAV in the world capable of carrying more than 10 cargo containers of payload units – the same type used by airliners. The model can even control refrigerators or refrigerated containers both on the ground and in the air.

Sabrewing’s announcement said it has orders for 28 aircraft, another 102 firm inquiries and 400 letters of intent. These orders represent $3.2 billion for the firm over the next six to seven years. Initial orders are scheduled to be completed by December 2023.

The company also has contracts with the US Air Force to study autonomous cargo delivery in harsh environments. He touted that Rhaegal could be used for more than just cargo delivery, suggesting that things like search and rescue missions, disaster relief and medical delivery could be future applications. The Air Force has already demonstrated using the plane to evacuate up to eight wounded.

Sabrewing reached a certification basis agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration in October 2019, and Rhaegal is now nearing certification in the US. The company is also working on certification with the European Aviation Safety Agency, the European Union’s equivalent of the FAA.

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