NASA has added another vehicle partner to its Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) National Campaign: San Francisco-based Elroy Air, developer of the Chaparral autonomous VTOL cargo drone.
Elroy Air joins air taxi developers Wisk and Alaka’i Technologies, which recently signed information exchange agreements with NASA respectively focused on autonomous passenger carrying and hydrogen fuel cell technologies. According to NASA’s Starr Ginn, AAM National Campaign lead, the agreement with Elroy Air will “add another dimension” to the campaign’s operational use cases.
“Elroy Air is pursuing fully autonomous in-flight capability as well as semi-autonomous and automated ground and payload handling operations,” Ginn explained in a NASA press release. “This partnership will help inform development of landing zones and ground operations, in addition to aircraft storage, maintenance, infrastructure, and procedures.”
Elroy Air describes its Chaparral cargo drone as “part warehouse robot” for its ability to autonomously pick up and drop off cargo pods on the ground without human intervention — capabilities that the company believes will be key to unlocking high-throughput aerial logistics. Elroy Air is targeting a range of 300 miles (480 kilometers) and a payload of 300 pounds (135 kilograms) for the hybrid-electric aircraft.
Speaking with eVTOL.com, Elroy Air head of strategy and business development Kofi Asante said that many of the company’s activities with NASA will take place on the ground, including an exploration of how to automate some maintenance tasks.
However, NASA and Elroy Air also intend to demonstrate key operational scenarios with flights of Chaparral. The partners will collaborate on flight safety reviews and technical validation approaches, and will integrate Elroy Air’s communications systems into a NASA airspace communications framework for urban air mobility (UAM) platforms.
“The demonstrations we are planning and the frameworks we’ll develop and validate together will showcase that logistics will be a smart and large early use case for this new and exciting chapter in VTOL aerospace,” Elroy Air co-founder Clint Cope stated in a post on Medium.
Asante added that the work with NASA will also provide Elroy Air with the opportunity to “collect more data around noise and sound, [as] we want to minimize our noise footprint over time.”
NASA is already working with 17 companies on the developmental test phase of the AAM National Campaign, which is laying the groundwork for the first series in the campaign, NC-1, in 2022. NC-1 will see NASA’s vehicle and airspace partners demonstrate integrated operations through flight activities at various locations across the U.S.
NASA is currently using a helicopter as a surrogate UAM vehicle in “dry run” testing that is expected to continue into March 2021. Once dry run testing is complete, NASA will use Joby Aviation’s prototype air taxi for developmental testing including designing flight scenarios for NC-1, and exercising range deployment and data collection protocols.
In addition to their partnerships with NASA, Elroy Air and Joby are participating in the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime initiative to accelerate development of the commercial eVTOL industry. In December, Elroy Air announced it had received a Phase 3 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract through Agility Prime that will provide a substantial boost to its Chaparral development efforts.
Elroy Air is currently between flying prototypes as it works on refinements to its design, but expects to take part in the Air Force’s “air race to certification” as well as flight activities in NC-1 once its next vehicle is ready.