For many consumers, delivery in more than two days simply doesn’t cut it anymore. The consumer in 2022 wants things the next day, the same day or even within the hour, but delivering on that expectation can be difficult for road- or rail-based vehicles, which are restricted to the paths that have been built for them.
“There is a lot of increasing pressure on logistics,” explained Dave Merrill, CEO of aerial delivery provider Elroy Air. “One of the ways we think about it is what’s called the Amazon effect, where there’s just more and more demand for high-performing logistics –– or same day, next day, two day –– and the existing infrastructure and modalities and ways of moving goods from one place to another can’t keep up with that demand for increasingly performant logistics.”
So Merrill and Elroy decided it was finally time for logistics to take flight. The Bay Area-based company on Wednesday unveiled its pre-production Chaparral aircraft, an autonomous, hybrid electric, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle capable of flying 300 to 500 pounds of payload over a distance of up to 300 miles –– all without a pilot.
“Our mission is to enable same-day shipping to every person on the planet,” Merrill told Modern Shipper.
Ready to take flight
The Chaparral, which got its first prototype in 2019, can make that dream a reality by filling the gap in the middle mile of air cargo, which often requires chartering expensive planes capable of carrying heavy cargo over long distances. Elroy’s newly unveiled aircraft can eliminate much of that cost while maintaining the range and capacity needed for the middle mile.
It’s able to do so because of a few state-of-the-art features. For one, Merrill described the Chaparral as a “lift plus cruise VTOL aircraft,” meaning it’s capable of launching vertically, cruising on wing-borne lift and returning to vertical flight to land, all without the aid of a pilot. The new model relies on eight fans capable of lifting it up and down, transitioning to wing-based lifts using four forward propulsors for cruising.
The pre-production Chaparral is also equipped with a hybrid electric powertrain, the same technology that powers vehicles like the Toyota Prius. That decision was made specifically with high-performance logistics capabilities in mind.
“Our customers need a longer range than what we could achieve with a pure battery electric design, given today’s state-of-the-art on batteries,” Merrill explained. “So it is an all-electric propulsion vehicle, both for the vertical fans and the forward propulsors. The source of the electrical power comes from an engine and a generator.”
Not only does a hybrid electric model provide greater range than a battery-powered model, it’s also easier to refill because it doesn’t need to rely on charging stations, which are often difficult to install in hard-to-reach places.
The new Chaparral model is also optimized for quick turnaround of cargo. According to Kofi Asante, Elroy’s vice president of business development and strategy and an alumnus of Uber, the aircraft borrows the drop freight model used by Uber Freight, which separates the cargo container from the vehicle for easier loading and unloading –– and less dock time.
“You actually get all that time back, because you decouple the cargo pod from the aircraft,” Asante explained. “So it’s literally a two-minute experience where you’re picking up and dropping off, and you continue to keep everything in motion.”
The Chaparral’s detached cargo containers can be loaded up and staged on the tarmac, where they are picked up by the aircraft. Each Chaparral is automatically assigned a new container after making a delivery and is capable of taxiing over to it, aligning itself over the cargo and robotically latching the container to the aircraft, all on its own. It’s even able to tilt its wings in a way that allows it to fit inside a shipping container for storage and transport.
In the near term, Merrill and Asante explained that airspace regulations will require them to fly the Chaparral with pilot supervision. But the aircraft is capable of fully autonomous takeoff, landing and flight, with remote operators ready to step in if needed.
“It’s an evolution of the previous model,” Merrill said. “I think the most obvious difference is that we have updated the airframe configuration. … We’ve also improved the redundancy, so having eight vertical fans for vertical flight adds additional redundancy; having four forward propulsors for forward flight also adds redundancy. And we made the cargo pod a bit larger than we had on the previous model.”
New model, same mission
The latest version of the Chaparral is now capable of carrying 300 to 500 pounds of payload over a distance of up to 300 miles, but despite the enhancements, Merrill said that the goal of the aircraft is the same as it was before –– to enable same-day delivery and serve the express, humanitarian and defense logistics industries.
Already, Elroy has locked down a series of agreements with stakeholders in all three industries to deliver 500 aircraft worth $1 billion. The company announced Wednesday that around 150 of those orders will go to regional express air carrier Mesa Airlines, which is tabbing the Chaparral as its middle-mile drone.
“They have decades of operational experience and also certification experience. They bring that expertise to the table, and we look forward to collaborating with them in multiple ways,” said Asante.
Elroy also announced that it would be receiving a tactical financing increase for its Phase III Small Business Innovation Research contract with the U.S. Air Force, adding $1.7 million to the value of that agreement.
“It is an affirmation of the Air Force’s enthusiasm for Chaparral, and for the benefits to the Air Force in automating logistics with Chaparral and systems like it,” said Merrill.
Meanwhile, on the humanitarian side, Elroy will continue to build on its recent partnership with AYR Logistics, which operates helicopters in over 45 countries and works with groups like the United Nations, UNICEF and the World Food Program. According to Asante, AYR plans to incorporate the Chaparral into its humanitarian delivery networks.
“The World Bank has explained that over a billion people are disconnected from reliable roadways,” he explained, “and so this idea of using vertical takeoff and landing where you don’t need roads, you don’t need airports, you don’t need charging stations is a pretty core piece to the humanitarian sector.”
Going forward, Elroy will also continue to leverage existing investors and partnerships. Merrill highlighted the company’s burgeoning relationship with Lockheed Martin, which was brought on as an investor during the company’s funding round in August and will help accelerate its trajectory to market.
He also emphasized the importance of Elroy’s partnerships with the Naval Postgraduate School and NASA, which have each allowed him and the company to test and develop unique solutions.
“In enabling an additional couple orders of magnitude of air cargo routes all over the map,” Merrill said, “we can push the boundary of where high-performing logistics can be achieved out to a lot of new places, a lot of new people and a lot of new communities.”
Asante agreed. For Elroy, the mission is to enable same-day delivery for everyone –– city dwellers as well as those in hard-to-reach places.
“We’re driven by the opportunity to democratize access to express logistics and air cargo in a way that just hasn’t been possible today,” he explained.