San Francisco-based Elroy Air has landed a Phase 3 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract from the U.S. Air Force that will help operationalize its hybrid-electric VTOL cargo drone, Chaparral.
The amount of the contract has not yet been announced, but is expected to be greater than the $1.5 million the Air Force awarded to Elroy Air last year under a Direct to Phase 2 SBIR contract. The new funding comes via Agility Prime, the Air Force effort to accelerate development of the commercial eVTOL industry.
According to Elroy Air CEO David Merrill, under Phase 3, the company will demonstrate technical progress of its subsystems and development tools as well as its next-generation Chaparral platform, which is expected to launch flight trials in the second half of next year.
“We ran a set of flight tests in a campaign in late 2019, and we determined some improvements we wanted to make to the vehicle . . . so we’ve been heads down since then updating some aspects of the design,” Merrill told eVTOL.com. “We’ve now kicked off the build of this updated system that will be the one that we take into flight validations in the back half of 2021.”
Because Elroy Air is between prototypes at the moment, it is not yet participating in Agility Prime’s so-called “air race to certification,” although it expects to do so next year. In the meantime, Merrill said, the SBIR contract will provide a framework for collaboration with the Air Force similar to the ones established with air race participants Beta Technologies and Joby Aviation, with the goal of clearing a path for adoption of the aircraft by the Air Force and other government customers.
Although the Chaparral is undergoing some modifications from the version that first flew in August 2019, Merrill said that the company continues to target a range of 300 miles (480 kilometers) and a payload of 300 pounds (135 kilograms) for the VTOL platform. With some refinements, the Chaparral will also retain the autonomous cargo handling system revealed last year, which uses a combination of technologies including lidar and camera navigation to pick up and drop off cargo pods without human intervention.
Merrill told eVTOL.com that this capability, developed to enable high-throughput logistics, is “something that makes sense for both our commercial logistics customers and for the Air Force, and really for very similar reasons.” Because the Chaparral’s cargo pods are loaded away from the aircraft and then staged for pickup, “the aircraft doesn’t have to wait around on the ground while it’s being loaded on one end of a mission and then unloaded on the other,” he said.
The approach also has safety advantages, in that “the people loading and unloading don’t have to walk up to this VTOL aircraft with rotors and stand right next to the propulsion systems,” he added.
Merrill suggested that this autonomous cargo handling ability could give military users not only the ability to move supplies between existing bases, but also to establish a logistics footprint in advance of personnel movements, as Chaparral drones don’t “need a lot of attention at either end of the mission.”
Major John “Wasp” Tekell, Elroy Air’s point of contact at Agility Prime, observed in a press release that the Air Force supports a wide range of military and humanitarian missions, and that its objectives can often be difficult or dangerous to accomplish with manned aircraft.
“We have a mandate to field an initial operational capability by 2023 of the next generation of unmanned VTOL aerial systems,” he stated. “Elroy Air typifies the kind of innovative company Agility Prime is partnering with, and they are already well down the path in developing a system that we believe can meet both commercial and government needs.”
Elroy Air is optimistic that its work with the Air Force could lead to contracts with other government users, such as the U.S. Marine Corps, which has partnered with the Air Force on Agility Prime. Said Merrill: “Once we’re flying demonstration flights in collaboration with the Air Force, I think they’ll provide a pretty accessible demo where these other branches of the government will be able to see it and get familiar with our system.”
Meanwhile, the financial and in-kind support provided by the Air Force is already helping prepare the Chaparral for commercial applications, including express parcel transport, humanitarian aid, and pharmaceutical and disaster relief missions. Advancing eVTOL development in ways that don’t compromise the platforms’ commercial viability is a main objective of Agility Prime.
“The Air Force and the groups we’ve been working with have been incredibly disciplined on making sure that the product requests and the features that they’re asking for will also be applicable for the commercial market,” noted Kofi Asante, Elroy Air’s head of strategy and business development. “The resources, the capital, the insight, the feedback [from the Air Force] have all been a catalyst for us to actually go to the commercial market even sooner than we were expecting.”