Autonomous cargo aircraft are bringing in same day delivery to remote areas

Photo: Elroy Air

Photo: Elroy Air

As the frequency of traffic bottlenecks increase across urban spaces, different mobility options and city regulations have been debated, with solutions like mobility as a service (MaaS) and electric bike-sharing cropping up over this decade. A more niche add-on to this segment would be the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) technology, which has created quite a spectacle since its ideation – due to its flamboyant nature as a transport option and the Jetsons-like futurism that it invokes.

Aircraft companies like Airbus and Boeing are hard at work, designing prototypes and also investing in startups functioning in the electric VTOL space. However, human mobility apart, the idea of VTOL could be applied to the use case of air cargo hauling. Not only is this much more realistic as it operates at a much-reduced risk compared to shuttling people, but it can be deployed in locations that are not densely populated – thus minimizing the risk even further.  

Elroy Air, a San Francisco-based aerospace logistics startup, is working to expand the reach of expedited logistics via air cargo hauling. “We are developing an aerial cargo VTOL system that is designed specifically for carrying medium payload cargo over fairly long range distances,” said Dave Merrill, co-founder and CEO at Elroy Air. “These aircraft systems fly autonomously and carry freight from A to B, to serve populations and places where there may not be excellent logistics otherwise. We can expand the reach of expedited capabilities into places where it was just not feasible to have it previously.”

Kofi Asante, head of strategy & business development at Elroy Air, weighed in on how VTOLs could be used to serve both humanitarian and commercial opportunities. “In the process of optimizing our solution for the ecommerce environment that looks at providing same-day shipping, we realized that our product is extremely useful for humanitarian purposes – like hauling medical supplies, blood, food and water,” he said. “The aircraft delivering an ecommerce package can be used to deliver critical supplies in any remote environment.”

The global expedited delivery market is worth $140 billion now, having grown by a 100-fold over the last five years. Asante mentioned that the trajectory would only keep going higher, and that this possibly gives Elroy Air a first-mover advantage in the space.

Elroy Air’s VTOL is built with a hybrid powertrain, with the system using its electric motors to ascend and descend, while functioning through its combustion engine after attaining the desired altitude. Merrill explained that a purely electric VTOL would be inefficient and designing a hybrid powertrain has allowed its system to clock 300 miles while carrying a load of 500 pounds.

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The cargo pod is designed to be modular, and can be picked up and dropped off autonomously by the aircraft. Since the pod is detachable from the powertrain, cargo can be pre-loaded into it, thus enabling a high throughput in a low turnaround time.

“We have six electric motors with each one having a rotor, which we need for the lift while hovering, take-off and landing. Also, electric motors are a lot safer and resilient. For instance, if a motor goes out, you would still have five more that would keep the system flying,” said Merrill. “The advantage that our hybrid VTOL has over others is that when the aircraft is cruising at an altitude, it will automatically charge the battery that powers vertical flight in under 10 minutes, and thus ready to pop back out when it’s time to land.”

Asante figured that this significantly minimizes the asset’s downtime – and the fact that it does not require any electric infrastructure at the landing airstrips would mean that the VTOL is truly dockless.

“We have already built the ground navigation system, and have tested the hovering aspect of the aircraft. But in a couple of months, we would be putting all of this together and test the full-stage aircraft in some locations along the West Coast, as approved by the government,” said Asante.  

Apart from building out its product, the startup is also busy solidifying its partners and customers, with an expected commercial deployment by 2020. Asante mentioned that the company’s partners understand that they can build a profitable business by expediting hauling across remote environments, while conveniently negating risks with regard to operating over densely populated areas.

“Our idea is to democratize access to something that we take for granted in the urban environment – which is the instant gratification of getting deliveries to your doorstep,” said Asante. “We are looking to harness that to help those in need, and also provide it to the emerging markets that are excited to experience the same luxury we have here in the U.S.”