During the winter season, the South Pole becomes one of the most isolated locations on the planet. For six months, 50 individuals commit to living at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station where extremely low temperatures, limited sunlight, and an unmaintained runway prevent aircraft from landing on the base. For these reasons, emergency operations become extremely difficult, and there are no scheduled winter resupply missions to aid the inhabitants.
Austellus-1 is an uncrewed aircraft system that will deliver high-value and time-critical supplies to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during the winter season. It is a high-wing cargo plane that is designed to cruise at Mach 0.79 and at high altitudes (35-40,000 ft) to ensure quick and efficient delivery of emergency supplies. In order to achieve this cruise Mach, it features swept wings and twin General Electric CF-34 turbofan engines. Austellus-1 has a maximum payload of 7,000 lbs that can fit in the 730 ft³ unpressurized cargo bay, which is loaded by the drop-down rear cargo door. It has a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 90,000 lbs and can hold 42,000 lbs of fuel. The aircraft has a wingspan of 97.7 ft, an aspect ratio of 12, and features a supercritical airfoil to reduce transonic drag.
Austellus-1 is outfitted for automatic and remotely-piloted flight capabilities. Its ground control station will be located in Punta Arenas, Chile, where it begins its 4,400 nmi round trip voyage to the South Pole. It will utilize a line of sight (LOS) communication system that allows for remotely piloted command and control during takeoff and landing. Once Austellus-1 travels beyond LOS range, it transitions to a beyond line of sight (BLOS) system to send and receive mission commands for the aircraft’s pre-programmed flight paths. Mission updates, telemetry, aircraft position, and vehicle health are communicated via the low-bandwidth Iridium satellite constellation.
Our aircraft will airdrop the payload over the South Pole using a low velocity, auto-extraction mechanism at 6,000 ft AGL. Using a Joint Precision Airdrop System, a steerable parachute will ensure the sensitive cargo lands within a margin of 30 meters from the target.
Unlike existing cargo aircraft that have made deliveries to the South Pole Station, Austellus-1 does not need to land at McMurdo Station for refueling. Austellus-1 has a 5,700 nmi range while carrying the maximum payload, allowing it to complete the intercontinental airdrop with sufficient reserves for wind vectoring and airport closure.
The team has performed different types of aerodynamic and mission analyses to validate our design decisions. We built an integrated performance model for the aircraft that simulates the design mission with inputs from our propulsion, drag, and weight models. The performance model predicts fuel burn and acts as a means to verify that our aircraft can hold the required weight in fuel and still weigh less than the designed MTOW for our aircraft.
We are planning entry into service by 2026 following FAA approval by way of a special airworthiness certificate. The current unit cost is estimated to be $70 million for limited production of 10 units but projected to be as low as $30 million for 80 units given we can acquire new customers such as shipping and logistics companies, humanitarian relief organizations, allied militaries, and more.