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FedEx Express to test autonomous aircraft

Company will collaborate with Elroy Air on middle-mile drone program

An artist’s rendering of a Chaparral autonomous aircraft flying into a FedEx Express facility. The package giant will conduct tests of the aircraft beginning in 2023. (Photo: Business Wire)

FedEx Express will test an autonomous air cargo aircraft in 2023, the company said Wednesday. Elroy Air, which has partnered with FedEx since January 2020, will supply the drone.

“FedEx was built on innovation and we are always looking toward new technologies to help enhance the logistics industry through improved safety, efficiency and customer service,” said Joe Stephens, senior vice president of global planning, engineering and technology at FedEx Express. “We look forward to continued testing and learning throughout our collaboration with Elroy Air.”

Elroy’s Chaparral autonomous aircraft, introduced in January, will fly FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX) cargo once certifications are secured. The Chaparral is a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft capable of autonomously picking up cargo between 300 pounds and 500 pounds and delivering it up to 300 miles away. It does not require airports for flight.

“We are proud to work with FedEx to build the next generation of express logistics,” said Kofi Asante, Elroy Air’s vice president of business development and strategy. “When you’re not limited by challenging infrastructure, traffic or airports, logistics can reach more people, faster than ever before. We look forward to working together to create a new future for how we get goods to people around the world.”

In a previous interview with Modern Shipper, Dave Merrill, CEO of Elroy Air, said the Chaparral is 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. It features eight fans capable of lifting it up or dropping it down, transitioning to wing-based lifts using four forward propulsors for cruising.

Read: Elroy Air unveils fully autonomous Chaparral aircraft

Read: Drone Disruptors: Elroy Air and the cargo drone

The preproduction version of the craft features a hybrid-electric powertrain that is the same technology that powers the Toyota Prius. The technology eliminates the need for a recharging station.

“Our customers need a longer range than what we could achieve with a pure battery electric design, given today’s state-of-the-art batteries,” said Merrill. “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.”

The aircraft adopts a drop-freight model that separates the cargo container from the vehicle for easier loading and unloading — and less dock time. Each cargo container can be preloaded on the tarmac and the Chaparral simply hovers over it to pick up the load.

In the January announcement of the Chaparral, Elroy Air said it had secured orders for 500 aircraft worth $1 billion, including an order for 150 by Mesa Airlines.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected]