Cloudline, a South African aerospace start-up, recently secured $6 million in funding with the goal of leading the global charge towards carbon emissions-free autonomous flight. Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic venture founded by ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Wendy Schmidt, participated in the seed round, along with other backers and venture-capital firms like the Raba Partnership, Verod-Kepple Africa Ventures, and 4Di.

Cloudline founder and CEO Spencer Horne set out six years ago to develop a transport system that connects isolated communities to the global supply chain by delivering large payloads using lighter-than-air drones. The idea stemmed from Horne’s passion for transportation technology and aviation, which he developed while growing up near a railway crossing in South Africa. Despite facing challenges studying aeronautics in the U.S., Horne returned to the continent to contribute to the field after spending two years at McKinsey, establishing a professional network and gaining insights into the diverse challenges facing African communities.

In 2016, drone delivery services targeting rural African consumers took off, with companies like Zipline in Rwanda and Matternet in Lesotho. Cloudline was founded the following year at the intersection of technology, transportation, and community outcomes. The start-up has since developed autonomous airships designed for long-range and long-duration flights, which provide a cost-efficient alternative to drones, helicopters, and satellites. Powered by helium gas and solar energy, these airships produce zero emissions and have significantly reduced operating costs compared to traditional aircraft.

The company’s airships can cover over 400 km with a fully loaded payload of 40 kg and operate for 10 hours, making them ideal for monitoring, mapping, and public safety applications. By integrating advanced sensors for data collection, the airships can also provide comprehensive data overlays for utilities with linear infrastructure, such as power lines, pipelines, railways, and roads, for maintenance and security purposes.

Cloudline has quickly gained traction among customers, including governmental institutions seeking a platform capable of carrying various payloads, particularly multi-sensor payloads for aerial monitoring. The company has experienced rapid revenue growth and is projecting substantial expansion in the coming years, with plans to extend its operations from South Africa to neighboring countries and eventually into global markets.

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