WASHINGTON — Space launch startup Aevum on May 18 said that its Ravn X unmanned aircraft will be used to both deliver cargo and launch rockets, pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. 

The Alabama-based company on May 4 received a patent for an “adaptive autonomous aircraft system with modular payload systems,” a technology that would allow Ravn X to be converted from a space launcher to a cargo delivery aircraft and vice versa.

Before receiving this patent, Aevum had been vague about its business plan, touting its autonomous aircraft as the first stage of a launch system that releases expendable rockets from under its belly.  

The company is now saying that space launch is only going to be a part-time job for Ravn X. The aircraft is intended to mostly perform cargo and drone delivery services, and launch rockets eight to 10 times a year, said Aevum’s founder and CEO Jay Skylus.

Since the company was started in 2016 the plan was always to be a “logistics company and not just a rocket company,” he said. “I just couldn’t really talk about it.”

Skylus said Ravn X will be capable of transporting cargo around the world and deploy rockets to space “simply by swapping out the type of payload module it carries on its belly.” 

The autonomously operated Ravn X weighs 55,000 pounds, is 80 feet in length with a 60-foot wingspan. For package deliveries, the cargo module could deploy up to 264 smaller drones, Skylus said. He said that the aircraft would be able to fly from any airport or spaceport that has a mile-long runway, a hangar and regular jet fuel.

Aevum assumed from the beginning that it needed other sources of revenue besides space launch, said Skylus. “What matters is asset utilization. For any reusable flying machine, it doesn’t generate revenue on the ground. My machines will fly around the clock, every day.”

Ravn X’s intended cargo capacity per flight is 15,000 pounds, comparable to an 18-wheeler traveling by road.

Skylus said Ravn X will fly for the first time later this year. Aevum has not yet set a target date for its first orbital space launch. 

Aevum currently has one Ravn X non-flight capable airframe for ground tests, which the company unveiled in December. Skylus said two more aircraft are in production and will be used for flight testing. 

The company does not disclose the sources of its private funding. Skylus said Aevum has won classified intelligence community and DoD space launch contracts, including a $4.9 million deal in 2019 to deploy a 100-kilogram military satellite called the Agile Small Launch Operational Normalizer (ASLON)-45. 

An uncrewed aircraft as the carrier platform for rockets is an attractive option for the military, Skylus said, because the vehicle is not restricted to specific launch sites and missions can be scheduled on short notice. 

In an interview with SpaceNews, Skylus said the company likely could not survive as just a small satellite launcher. “Eight launches for $40 million is not an attractive business for most people,” he said. “Now we can claim that we can be sustainable because we’re not just doing those eight launches, we’re flying air cargo.”

He noted that a drone as large as Ravn X has never been certified by the FAA for commercial operations. The company is now pursuing both FAA airworthiness certification and commercial space launch licensing. 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...