Elroy Air’s recent official launch of its autonomous Chaparral C1 VTOL cargo transporter gave the advanced air mobility sector its most comprehensive impression yet of what the U.S. start-up plans to bring to market. Speaking during the Vertical Flight Society’s Transformative Vertical Flight conference in San Jose, California, in late January, co-founder and CEO David Merrill predicted that hybrid-electric aircraft have the potential to bring express freight delivery services to parts of the globe that currently lack this convenience.
“Because the Chaparral takes off and lands vertically, it can serve exponentially more destinations than traditional air cargo,” he claimed. “It’s also faster than ground transportation and has lower operating costs, not to mention better fuel efficiency, than today’s manned aircraft.”
According to Elroy Air, the Chaparral will allow logistics providers to significantly reduce—if not completely eliminate—their dependency on airports. “With this aircraft, you can fly goods from warehouse to warehouse, airport to warehouse, or warehouse to business customers,” Merrill said. “By creating a much wider set of cargo routes for middle-mile logistics, we can expand the reach of express shipping, enabling same-day and next-day deliveries everywhere.”
The design features eight vertical lift fans, four distributed electric propulsors for cruise flight, 11 aero-surface actuators, and a high wing. The vehicle is expected to be able to carry between 300 and 500 pounds of cargo on sectors of up to around 300 miles.
It’s this range that is of particular importance for the Chaparral. “One key difference between air taxis and logistics-focused VTOL aircraft is range,” Merrill maintained. “A pure battery system doesn’t give us the longer range, which is why we opted to develop a hybrid-electric powertrain instead.”
Other key features include a high-voltage power distribution system designed for fault isolation, a redundant 700-volt lithium battery pack sized to handle generator failure, an onboard detect-and-avoid system, a command-and-control data link, Lidar systems for ground safety and navigation, and an ADS-B in/out transceiver.
A 150-kW gas turbine-based electrical power-generation system will provide electrical power for propulsion and recharge the onboard battery during flight, eliminating recharging downtime. “This aircraft was designed for very high utilization, with lots of flight hours per day,” said Merrill. “That means reducing downtime for recharging or loading and unloading.”
For the latter, Elroy Air designed a proprietary cargo container and automated cargo-handling system. The modular cargo pod consists of a pallet and an aero-fairing cover. The freight is stacked on the pallet and strapped down before the cover is slid over and attached for flight. The pod can be moved by a standard pallet jack and forklift, and the aircraft features robotic winching and latching for rapid loading and unloading.
Once the cargo pod is locked and loaded, the automated cargo-handling system comes into play. “As soon as the aircraft lands vertically, it is assigned a place to unload the inbound cargo, where it lowers and releases the pod,” explained Merrill. “Then, based on its next assignment, the Chaparral automatically taxis to and aligns with the new container, picks it up and secures it for the mission before taxiing to takeoff.”
The handling system, which uses an ultra-wide beacon-based triangulation system for localizing pods, was inspired by the drop freight shipping concept. “Using a separate cargo container and vehicle enables a very high utilization of the vehicle assets and the driver’s time,” added Merrill. “But unlike a truck, the Chaparral can go directly to the loading docks, resulting in even faster turnaround times.”
Having already secured provisional sales agreements for 500 aircraft, Elroy is confident that an immediate path to market exists for its Chaparral. “This is a really exciting moment for Elroy Air, and I believe our Chaparral cargo VTOL is well-positioned to change aviation—and logistics—for the better,” Merrill concluded.
The California-based company expects flights to begin with commercial customers in 2023.