Long range autonomous and heavy-lift drone gains applications in rural deliveries and humanitarian aid
Elroy Air has been demonstrating its pre-production Chaparral aircraft, which can autonomously pick up 300-500 lbs (136-226kg) of cargo and deliver it by air up to 300 miles (482 km), a capability that pushes beyond the limited payload capabilities of delivery drones and the airport infrastructure required of piloted air cargo options currently available.
According to Elroy Air Co-founder and CEO David Merrill, the Chaparral is a first-of-its-kind autonomous air cargo system that is considered to be an important part of the future of express logistics.
“It is built for full end-to-end automation and it will safely and efficiently make express shipping possible in thousands of new places. It’s a delivery drone that’s faster than ground transport and lower cost than today’s traditional aircraft,” he says.
Reaching rural communities
Mesa Airlines, an American regional airline operating large fleets on behalf of partners including American Airlines, United Airlines, and DHL, has expressed its intent to order 150 aircraft to serve the express parcel and healthcare sectors.
According to Jonathan Ornstein, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Mesa Airlines, there is certainly a reason why this is the right time to deploy the Chaparral system because the market really requires it. He says that a new market isn’t even being create because the company is simply answering a demand that exists in the market today that is currently unfulfilled.
“We are increasingly seeing demand for same and next-day deliveries but so many rural communities have been cut off from the national transport system. 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,” he says.
Emergency humanitarian operations
Logistics support operator, AYR Logistics has now signed up with Elroy Air to purchase 100 Chaparral aircraft to augment and expand its humanitarian logistics business, which operates in 45 countries.
According to Stephen Lyons, Chief Development Officer of AYR Logistics, what aid agencies spend on transport is money that they’re not spending on food, medicine and other emergency supplies, but that transport is nonetheless very important to get the aid to where it needs to be. Moving to unmanned, aerial cargo vehicles will make a huge difference to the cost structure and risk profile of aid operations.
“We fly over difficult terrain and in 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 market. It is a huge leap forwards in terms of load carrying and range as well as being able to operate with minimal infrastructure,” he says.
Elroy Air says it has designed an aircraft that behaves like a hybrid between a rough-and-ready helicopter and a battle-hardened bush plane, that can pick up cargo up anywhere with a 50 square foot landing area. As such, 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.
The Chaparral features eight vertical lift fans, four distributed electric propulsors for forward flight, a high-wing airframe configuration and improved ground autonomy and cargo-handling systems.
The Chaparral is a transitioning “lift + cruise” VTOL aircraft with a full carbon composite airframe, and a turbine-based hybrid-electric powertrain for long-range mission capabilities. It was also designed to fit in a 40’ shipping container or C-130 cargo aircraft, enabling it to be quickly shipped and deployed anywhere in the world.
Elroy Air has developed lightweight, aerodynamic modular cargo pods that can be pre-loaded by ground personnel and picked up by the aircraft before takeoff. At the delivery location, the cargo pod is lowered to the ground and released after the system has landed. The Chaparral system can retrieve another pre-packed pod and transport the pod to its next destination, creating a bi-directional conveyor belt through the sky.