Autonomous cargo drones like those developed by Pyka, pictured above, are targeting a variety of markets and applications. The CEO of Pyka joined the CEOs of Dronamics, Elroy Air, and MightyFly in discussing the potential of the growing cargo drone industry. (Photo: Pyka)
An event hosted by McKinsey & Company last week featured presentations from the CEOs of four companies developing cargo drones: Elroy Air, Pyka, MightyFly, and Dronamics. The Future Air Mobility webinar included discussions about unmanned aerial logistics, unique solutions for different markets, and what the future holds for this industry.
According to David Merrill, CEO and co-founder of Elroy Air, using cargo drones to offer expanded express shipping will improve people’s quality of life worldwide. “Getting people the things that they need faster is really a public good,” he said. Scaling up the use of cargo drones will require a final integration approach, he added. Individual companies each take a unique approach to launching in a particular market, but what will unlock the industry’s potential is the establishment of a comprehensive regulatory framework.
Elroy Air’s aircraft, the Chaparral, has vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities; it is a lift-plus-cruise hybrid electric design with a 300-mile range and payload capacity of 300–500 pounds. Merrill listed some of their targeted verticals and customers: express parcel shippers, disaster relief or humanitarian aid, and military resupply logistics.
FedEx announced a partnership with Elroy Air this year to evaluate the use of an autonomous VTOL aircraft for performing middle-mile logistics operations. (Photo: FedEx Express)
FedEx Express formed a partnership agreement with Elroy Air earlier this year to flight test the Chaparral system for middle-mile logistics operations. And just last month, Bristow Group signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) with Elroy Air for a pre-order of 100 Chaparral vehicles.
Elroy Air’s strategy is less about replacing routes covered by other vehicles like the Cessna Caravan utility aircraft, said Merrill. It’s more about “pushing out a map of where express cargo is possible to make it available to everyone,” he explained, “and creating thousands of new cargo routes that can go direct from one warehouse to another and don’t have to route through the airport network anymore.”
The CEO and co-founder of Pyka, Michael Norcia, worked at Joby, Wisk, and Kittyhawk before founding Pyka in 2017. The aim was to “create a company that could iterate technologies as fast as possible,” Norcia commented. Pyka incorporated an inherent tolerance of risk from the beginning, targeting the complex mission of crop dusting—spraying crops with protective materials.
Pyka’s second-generation design is an electric autonomous ag airplane, the Pelican cargo drone, flown for the first time in January 2020. Serial production of the aircraft started in late 2020 and it was first delivered to a customer in April 2021. It’s designed to perform complex agricultural operations on farms; the Pelican can cover 130 acres/hour as a spray drone.
Norcia believes that their fixed-wing electric aircraft will redefine the way route planning is done. Pyka will target inter-island commerce and customers in rural areas by performing “really cheap aircraft-based missions with a 1,000-pound payload,” he stated.
“The challenge here is actually reliability of a technical system,” said Norcia. In order to reach optimal levels of aircraft safety for things like passenger-carrying transportation, a new company needs to perform at least 10,000 hours of flight testing to work out any issues. Establishing high levels of reliability is one of the challenges for companies developing new autonomous aircraft and ensuring a successful commercial launch.
Manal Habib, CEO and founder of MightyFly, explained that her company was created to solve the problem of expensive and limited expedited delivery. “With conventional methods like vans or trucks, same-day delivery starts at $240 per package,” Habib explained. Small delivery drones could be incredibly useful for the transportation of medical supplies, she said, but they are typically limited to a payload capacity of less than 5 pounds.
In comparison, MightyFly aims to build a more sustainable solution that makes same-day delivery both faster and less expensive. Their two models are the MF100 and MF500, which will be able to carry up to 100 and 500 pounds of cargo, respectively, at a range of 600 miles. The Federal Aviation Administration has awarded MightyFly with a special airworthiness certification, and the team has already performed successful autonomous flights. They are currently working with customers in the U.S., Australia, Japan, and Singapore.
MightyFly’s MF100 is a hybrid-electric VTOL aircraft with a 600-mile range. (Photo: MightyFly)
“We’re looking to transform the whole expedited delivery sector into autonomous air cargo delivery, and to make that sector way more efficient,” Habib commented. “As we progress, the system and regulations can move to where we trust the autonomy; we will [eventually] have one operator for multiple aircraft. There is going to be some involvement in the operation, but we see that the number of humans and labor involved is going to drastically decrease.”
Svilen Rangelov is the CEO and co-founder of Dronamics. He recently spoke with Avionics International about the company’s cargo drones and their strategy for scaling up manufacturing. Its cargo drone, the Black Swan, is a fixed-wing aircraft that requires a runway at least 400 meters long for take-off and landing. During the Future Air Mobility webinar, Rangelov explained that their aircraft “will essentially be an all-in-one solution.”
The Black Swan fixed-wing cargo drone developed by Dronamics (Photo: Dronamics)
Dronamics intends to operate as a middle-mile solution for missions of at least 300 miles. In developing their cargo drones and droneports, “we’ve tried to mimic existing aviation as much as possible,” Rangelov remarked, “and use existing airports. We need people at every end. If those airports are the gateway to the local community, people need to be involved in the handling, maintenance, and piloting.”
He believes that once the aircraft are performing frequent operations, cargo drones will eventually be even more favorable, economically speaking, than existing aviation. The key is lowering risk by reaching technological stability.
“The regulatory environment has gotten more solid,” Rangelov believes. “The EU passed regulations last year that was the huge unlock.”
Dronamics claims that it is the first cargo drone company to receive a European drone airline license, also known as the light UAS operator certificate (LUC), which is granted individually by European national aviation authorities.