UPS and its UPS Flight Forward subsidiary will purchase up to 150 eVTOL aircraft from Vermont-based Beta Technologies, the companies announced this week.
UPS plans to use the piloted eVTOL aircraft transport time-sensitive deliveries that would otherwise fly on small conventional airplanes. Rather than relying on airports, the fully electric aircraft will take off and land on-property at UPS facilities, creating a “micro air feeder network without the noise or operating emissions of traditional aircraft,” according to Beta founder and CEO Kyle Clark.
The aircraft will have a range of 250 miles (around 400 kilometers), a cruising speed of up to 170 mph (270 km/h), and a cargo capacity of 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms). UPS expects its new fleet to benefit healthcare providers, small and medium-sized businesses, and other companies in smaller communities, with the aircraft flying either one long route or a series of short routes on a single charge to meet customers’ needs.
“These new aircraft will create operational efficiencies in our business, open possibilities for new services, and serve as a foundation for future solutions to reduce the emissions profile of our air and ground operation,” UPS chief information and engineering officer Juan Perez stated in a press release.
UPS expects to take delivery of its first 10 aircraft from Beta starting in 2024, with an option to purchase as many as 150. UPS will also be using Beta’s proprietary modular charging stations, which will rapidly recharge the aircraft in less than an hour, leveraging used aircraft batteries that are no longer optimal for flight. UPS also expects to use the charging stations for its growing fleet of electric ground vehicles.
The contract with UPS represents a third major win for Beta as it pushes into the cargo and cargo-adjacent markets. The eVTOL developer’s launch customer is United Therapeutics, which plans to use its aircraft to carry human organs for transplant. Beta also has significant contracts with the U.S. Air Force through the latter’s Agility Prime program, which could lead to use of its aircraft for military logistics applications.
Beta has been steadily advancing flight testing of its full-scale Alia-250 prototype, a lift-plus-cruise design that uses four lifting propellers for vertical take-offs and landings, and a rear-mounted pusher propeller for cruise. For its initial phase of testing, the aircraft has been flying in airplane mode with its lifting propellers removed, including during its first interstate flight on March 17 between its testing ground in Plattsburgh, New York, and Beta headquarters in Burlington, Vermont.
The aircraft has attained altitudes up to 8,000 feet and a personal best in range that has not been disclosed, although publicly available flight tracking data indicates it has flown an actual distance of more than 100 miles (160 km) in a single flight. Hover testing will come next as the company works toward completing full transitions from vertical to forward flight and back.
Although Beta’s eVTOL design has an onboard pilot to facilitate near-term certification, the company expects its aircraft to someday fly autonomously as technologies and regulations are established. UPS Flight Forward in 2019 became the first drone operator to achieve part 135 standard air carrier certification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and is operating daily revenue-generating flights with drones.
According to UPS, the FAA certification enables UPS Flight Forward to fly payloads of up to 7,500 lb. (3,400 kg) either with an operator or autonomously.