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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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First flight for Elroy Air’s hybrid-electric cargo drone

Elroy Air has achieved the first flight of its full-scale hybrid-electric cargo drone, the Chaparral.

Elroy Air Chaparral drone
Elroy Air’s full-scale Chaparral prototype on its maiden flight. Although this flight was remotely piloted, future flights will be autonomous. Elroy Air Photo

The San Francisco-based startup reported that its 1,215-pound (550-kilogram) prototype took to the air on Aug. 14 at McMillan Airfield at Camp Roberts, California, in a test flight conducted in partnership with the Naval Postgraduate School. Remotely piloted by Elroy Air’s lead test pilot, the aircraft rose vertically to a height of 10 feet and hovered for 64 seconds before safely descending.

According to Elroy Air CEO David Merrill, although the test was “in some ways a simple flight, it represents the coordination and compilation of a lot of work since the very beginning of the company.” Now, he said, Elroy Air will begin layering in more autonomous capabilities, so that within a couple of months, the Chaparral should be conducting more sophisticated autonomous test flights, “where the pilot is just supervising and not actively in the loop flying the aircraft.”

Merrill told eVTOL.com that Elroy Air, founded in 2016, is “animated by the belief that high-performing logistics raises quality of life [and] should be a human right, the same way that utilities like electricity and water should be.” To that end, the company is aiming at a vehicle that will initially be able to carry 250 pounds (110 kilograms) of cargo over a distance of 300 miles, enabling the expedient delivery of pharmaceuticals, priority parcels, and humanitarian aid to remote locations — “parts of the world where it just isn’t practical to do it today,” he said.

To do so, Elroy Air is leveraging many of the same technological developments that have enabled makers of eVTOL air taxis, including better batteries, electric motors, and motor controllers, plus advances in remote sensing and autonomy. But whereas all-electric systems may be feasible for short intra-urban hops that carry a handful of passengers, Elroy Air quickly determined that it needed a hybrid-electric system to accomplish its target missions.

“When we went out and started talking to our customers in big logistics and air cargo, we got a very different picture of what the need looked like,” Merrill said. “VTOL is the common denominator — that’s still valuable for both use cases because it decouples the systems from needing airport infrastructure. But what we learned about cargo is that longer trips were necessary; longer missions. So when we ran the numbers, it was just very clear that given today’s battery technology, the energy density of batteries just wasn’t going to give us what we needed for long-range missions for cargo.”

Another advantage of a hybrid system is that it facilitates operations in remote and under-served locations, pointed out Elroy Air head of strategy and business development Kofi Asante. In many of the communities targeted by humanitarian operations, for example, “it would be pretty challenging to think about needing a charging station with the amount of power required to be able to charge our aircraft and keep it in high utilization,” he said.

The Chaparral’s VTOL capability is enabled by six fixed-pitch rotors driven by large brushless DC electric motors. For purposes of noise abatement, the aircraft will perform vertical takeoffs and landings solely on battery power. Once at altitude, the aircraft will transition into forward flight using a single propeller, while the vertical rotors will shut down and be locked into a forward orientation. Cruise flight will be powered by a traditional combustion engine, which will also power a generator that recharges the battery pack. Elroy Air is currently exploring the possibility of creating multiple versions of the aircraft with different engines that use Jet A or gasoline as customer needs dictate, Asante said.

Elroy Air Chaparral drone with cargo pod
Elroy Air is designing the Chaparral to be able to pick up and drop off cargo pods autonomously, using lidar and cameras for ground navigation. Elroy Air Photo

A unique aspect of the system will be its ability to pick up and drop off cargo pods without human intervention. Cargo pods will be packed by people and then staged “on the tarmac or the parking lot or the loading dock, or wherever the system is operating,” Merrill explained. Then, using lidar and a camera-based vision system for ground navigation, the Chaparral will taxi itself into position over the pod and use a grasping mechanism to pick it up and attach it to the aircraft, enabling high-throughput operations.

“We haven’t officially announced any partnerships, but we have had interest from large logistics providers, large pharmaceutical companies, large humanitarian companies, and even large air cargo operators, both domestically and abroad, who would be interested in utilizing our system,” Asante told eVTOL.com. While Elroy Air sees the U.S. as an important market, Asante said the company may initially launch its aerial cargo system in international markets, such as island nations, where the Chaparral would provide an immediate and compelling value proposition.

For the time being, Elroy Air has yet to decide whether it will be primarily a seller or also an operator of its aircraft. According to Asante, customers have expressed interest in both business models, and “we’re excited to continue to entertain both [options] and understand where the market is moving and experiment.”

Merrill said the first phase of flight testing will be focused on proving out the aircraft’s vertical flight systems and the integration of its cargo pod handling system. That will inform engineering and production of an updated version of the aircraft, which will be used for long-range flight testing starting next year.

According to Merrill, the Chaparral exemplifies the confluence of opportunities that is also driving the development of passenger-carrying eVTOL aircraft.

“One of the unique things about what we’re doing right now is that this is a moment in aerospace where a lot of new things are possible. . . . there’s this backdrop of technology that has advanced to the point where now suddenly a team like ours that has the right people on board, but is relatively small, can build a world-class system like we’ve done,” he said.

“I think to me that’s the really exciting part, is that we don’t have to be big aerospace; we don’t have to be a defense prime to build a system like this and make it work. We can actually be a very targeted, talented small team and do this, which in many ways kind of hearkens back to the early days of aerospace and rotorcraft.”

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