Elroy Air, a startup that wants to make cargo deliveries using autonomous hybrid-electric aircraft, has unveiled its pre-production craft: the Chapparral.
Described by Elroy Air’s co-founder Clint Cope as “a hybrid between a rough-and-ready helicopter and a battle-hardened bush plane,” the Chaparral is a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) craft that transitions between hovering using eight vertical fans and forward flight using four swiveling propellers. A hybrid-electric powertrain gives it a range of up to 300 miles (482km) and a cargo capacity of 300 to 500lbs (136 to 226kg). Goods are loaded into an underslung pod that can autonomously be picked up and dropped off.
“The Chaparral will be a vital logistics link for people around the world with unreliable roadways and in remote and rural areas that take longer to reach today,” said Cope in a press statement.
Elroy first showed off a prototype of the aircraft in 2019 but says it’s since improved on the design. The company announced today it’s “secured agreements” to supply 500 aircraft to commercial, defense, and humanitarian customers, and says these amount to “more than $1 billion in aircraft demand.” (Side-note: it’s not clear if all these “agreements” are done deals, as the company refers to at least one customer’s “intent to order” in its press release.)
Why autonomous cargo delivery though? Well, it’s a fast-growing field, developing from the work of more established drone delivery firms like Zipline and Alphabet’s Wing. While these companies focus on delivering small items, firms like Elroy Air are exploring larger loads. The lure of autonomy in this area is clear: taking pilots and passengers out of the equation obviously reduces the danger to human life, while the development of new, efficient electric VTOL systems has simplified the work of loading and unloading cargo,
The promise of the Chaparral in particular is fast deployment in rough terrain. That’s why there’s interest from both military and humanitarian customers. Elroy has received funding from the US Air Force and an order for 100 new craft from AYR Logistics, a company that works with aid groups like the United Nations and World Food Programme (WFP).
“Moving to unmanned, aerial cargo vehicles will make a huge difference to our cost structure and the risk profile of our operations,” Stephen Lyons, chief development officer at AYR Logistics, said in a press statement.
“We fly in difficult terrain and difficult conditions. We don’t always have the luxury of a runway or even personnel at some locations. There simply hasn’t been a UAV with the type of capabilities that the Chaparral has in the commercial markets.”
The Chaparral is designed to fit inside a standard 40-foot shipping container, making it easy to move and deploy around the world, while its modular cargo pods can be pre-loaded by personnel on the ground and then left within a 50-foot landing square for pick-up.
You can see a video of the original 2019 prototype in action below:
As well as military and humanitarian customers, Elroy says it’s also received interest from regional airlines Mesa Airlines to use the craft in express parcel and medical delivery.
“We are increasingly seeing the demand for same and next-day delivery, but so many rural communities have been cut off from the national transportation system,” said Mesa Airlines CEO Jonathan Ornstein in a press statement. “Pilot shortages and environmental regulations make this even more challenging. With the Chaparral, we’re excited to be able to provide autonomous cargo delivery to help reconnect those communities.”
While the technology for these and similar drone delivery systems is looking increasingly mature and robust, it still remains to be seen whether the price of development and deployment will lead to long-term work. While the military may be willing to spend freely in order to get materiel to the battlefield, it’s not clear if the incentives of same-day delivery will support the same prices.