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By Elan Head

An award-winning journalist, Elan is also a commercial helicopter pilot and an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument ratings. Follow her on Twitter @elanhead

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Elroy Air cargo drone is ‘part warehouse robot’

Elroy Air has revealed new details about the cargo handling system in its hybrid-electric Chaparral drone — technology the company believes will be critical to enabling high-throughput aerial logistics.

A video released this week shows the cargo handling system in action on a full-scale Chaparral demonstrator, the same aircraft that conducted an initial flight test campaign from August through October of this year. Now back at Elroy’s headquarters in San Francisco, California, the demonstrator has been equipped with the cargo system that has been developed in parallel with the aircraft itself.

The system is based on lightweight, aerodynamic pods capable of carrying up to 300 pounds (135 kilograms) of cargo. These containers, separate from the aircraft, are packed and set outside for pickup. Then, the Chaparral autonomously guides itself into position over the pod, where it drops a crane mechanism that locks into each end of the container and winches it into place on the belly of the aircraft for flight. At the destination, the crane lowers the pod to the landing zone, and the Chaparral can pick up another container for the return flight.

“What that allows for is that the pod can be loaded up early, and can be staged and ready, and the aircraft never has to wait around to get loaded or unloaded,” explained Elroy Air CEO David Merrill. “And that’s really the key, we think, to unlocking high throughput.”

Merrill said the Chaparral’s cargo system has been in development for essentially as long as the aircraft itself. “We’ve spent a lot of our design and engineering effort making that part of the system work, alongside the core flight performance,” he said. In fact, he continued, the Chaparral was conceived as “part warehouse robot,” inspired by modern warehouse automation “where you’ve got this really clear delineation between what the people are doing and what the system does, in order to create a very efficient result.”

Elroy Air Chaparral cargo pod
The Chaparral’s cargo handling system is designed for maximum efficiency. “We think that creating these really efficient ‘conveyor belt through the sky’ effects come from making the aircraft itself, the asset, never sit around unused,” said Elroy Air CEO David Merrill.

The system uses a combination of technology to enable autonomous pick ups and drop offs. Initially, the aircraft homes in on the pod through a combination of GPS and radio sensing of a beacon attached to the cargo container, Merrill said. “As it navigates on the ground, it uses some of the same perception that autonomous vehicles are starting to mature now, like lidar and camera-based navigation,” he explained. “And then as it gets close to the pod, it’s using this beacon and the camera system to do its final alignment as it taxis over the pod to pick it up.”

Merrill noted that there’s some mechanical leeway in the system to accommodate circumstances such as uneven ground, or less than perfect alignment. As the pod is on its way up to the aircraft, the system can also confirm that the container is loaded appropriately and is not too heavy.

Generally speaking, the autonomy in the cargo handling system is independent of the Chaparral’s autonomous flight systems. “There’s a little bit of sharing of some of the perception, so the same lidar system that allows the system to navigate on the ground can be used on the final approach to verify that it’s a clear landing zone,” Merrill said. However, the ground handling and flight critical systems use different power supplies and different processors, “so that one can’t interfere with the other.”

Elroy Air head of strategy and business development Kofi Asante noted that the Chaparral’s autonomous ground navigation offers safety advantages in busy operations. Because the cargo containers are loaded away from the vehicle, “this large-scale, over 1,200-pound aircraft doesn’t necessarily have to get close to people,” he said. Moreover, the autonomy means that no special ground infrastructure is required: any clear, relatively flat area will do.

“For us, we’re really cognizant of minimizing the level of infrastructure,” Asante said. The space required for the Chaparral is “really less than even the size of a helipad if you were to think about it visually.”

That flexibility will be key for many of Elroy Air’s target applications, which include humanitarian relief, pharmaceutical and parcel delivery, and military resupply — the last of which the company is exploring in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force. “A lot of the markets that are starting to make the most sense for us have challenging infrastructure, but still a need to get things urgently from point A to point B,” Asante continued. He said that the company aims to deliver production aircraft to its first confirmed customers in 2021, although he was not yet able to disclose the identities of those customers, or their locations.

Merrill emphasized that Elroy Air has been focused on designing an optimal aerial cargo delivery system from day one. But he added that he has been encouraged to see eVTOL air taxi developers like Volocopter and Pipistrel announcing their own cargo drone programs, since “it makes us feel like we’re on the right track.” He also predicted that these relatively low-risk projects will help pave the way for future deployment of air taxis in densely populated urban areas, which he described as “the double black diamond safety case” for emerging eVTOL technology.

Asante likewise drew a direct line from the small delivery drones that are flying today, to larger drones like the Chaparral, and on to eVTOL air taxis. “If we think about it that way, it seems that our time hopefully is right around the corner, and that will hopefully be a catalyst for some of the larger systems focused on carrying people,” he said.

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