AI & Autonomy, Air Taxi, Unmanned

Elroy Air Debuts the Chaparral, an Autonomous VTOL Cargo Aircraft

VTOL developer Elroy Air has just revealed their pre-production aircraft, the Chaparral, an autonomous cargo drone with a range of up to 300 miles and the capacity to carry 500 pounds of cargo. (Photo: Elroy Air)

Elroy Air revealed its pre-production vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft last week, the Chaparral—the first end-to-end autonomous VTOL aerial cargo system. It is capable of picking up cargo weighing up to 500 pounds and performing air deliveries at a range of 300 miles. Elroy Air is headquartered in South San Francisco, CA, and has received funding from Catapult Ventures, Lockheed Martin Ventures, Marlinspike Capital, and Prosperity7 Ventures, in addition to various angel investors.

The company’s CEO and co-founder, David Merrill, spoke during the Transformative Vertical Flight 2022 conference last week. “Our mission is to enable same-day shipping to every person on the planet,” he said, explaining that their system for moving cargo directly to loading docks can be done at a speed much faster than today’s trucks. Elroy Air’s President and co-founder, Clint Cope, commented, “The Chaparral will be a vital logistics link for people around the world with unreliable roadways and in remote and rural areas that take longer to reach today.”

The Chaparral features a hybrid-electric powertrain, eight vertical lift fans, and four distributed electric propulsors, in addition to a modular cargo pod. (Photo: Elroy Air)

Development of the Chaparral has been underway for the past two and a half years. It is a hybrid-electric vehicle that has an in-flight rechargeable lithium battery. The hybrid-electric powertrain offers range, reliability, and flexibility. The modular cargo pod, explained Merrill, allows for rapid loading and unloading, and the aircraft uses LIDAR for navigation on the ground. “This modality will be faster than ground transport with lower operating costs than today’s manned aircraft, and better efficiency than today’s helicopters.” He added, “We’re designing it to be utilized at a very high level—lots of hours per day—which was our motivation for creating a separate cargo container that can be picked up and dropped off.”

Elroy Air has already agreed to provide more than 500 aircraft, amounting to over $1 billion in demand, to its customers including AYR Logistics—looking to expand its humanitarian logistics business—and Mesa Airlines, along with other commercial and defense customers. Mesa Airlines plans to order 150 aircraft to meet what it sees as the growing air transportation needs of the express parcel and healthcare sectors.

As of August 2021, Elroy shared that they had raised $40 million in funding. Having now secured agreements for purchases of its VTOL of more than $1 billion, the company looks to be on track to continue rapid expansion over the next year and make further improvements to the Chaparral aircraft as it goes through flight tests and demonstrations.

Elroy announced a partnership with NASA last year “to accelerate and improve the safe integration of advanced autonomous cargo aircraft into the United States airspace,” according to the announcement. Using the Chaparral VTOL, the partnership will demonstrate operational advanced air mobility (AAM) scenarios. The FAA will also support the flight tests and demonstrations for middle-mile aerial logistics.

“The opportunity is to dramatically expand the reach of express logistics, by creating orders of magnitude more aerial cargo routes that can operate to/from locations that would not support air cargo today,” David Merrill told Aviation Today in a recent interview.

More than 500 units have already been pre-ordered—equivalent to more than $1 billion. (Photo: Elroy Air)

The U.S. Air Force awarded Elroy a Phase 3 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract with the Agility Prime program at the end of 2020, In the expansion of their existing partnership, Agility Prime will fund technical demonstrations and validations of the Chaparral aircraft’s performance. The Agility Prime program will be evaluating the Chaparral for USAF use cases, and they see the autonomous VTOL as capable of meeting both commercial and government needs.

An early prototype of Elroy’s Chaparral was first flown in 2019. Today, the model possesses eight vertical lift fans, four distributed electric propulsors, and updated systems for ground autonomy and cargo handling. In sharing the company’s vision for the future, Merrill stated that “by 2023, we expect to be doing commercial flights with customers, beginning full-scale operations, and continuing to expand.” 

Elroy also released a video unveiling the Chaparral aircraft can be viewed here. 

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