Volocopter is partnering with Near Earth Autonomy to complete the development of autonomous flight technology for its unmanned VoloDrone freight-carrying eVTOL aircraft. Pittsburgh-based Near Earth will provide hardware that will be integrated and tested with autonomous flight control software being developed by Volocopter.
The companies plan to demonstrate the systems in a beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight demonstration to be conducted during 2022 in Munich, close to where Volocopter is based. In a May 27 announcement, they said that the joint project will aim to establish standardized BVLOS missions for the VoloDrone in providing business-to-business transportation services.
The all-electric VoloDrone is expected to be able to carry a payload of 200 kg (440 pounds) on flights of up to around 40 km (25 miles). With BVLOS autonomous capability, Volocopter estimates the projected market for VoloDrone services to be around $120 billion by 2035.
The German company aims to start commercial operations with both the VoloDrone and the passenger-carrying VoloCopter model within the next three years. Eventually, it aims to certify the two-seat VoloCopter for autonomous operations, but the partnership with Near Earth is confined to the freight aircraft for now. It is also working on the four-seat VoloConnect aircraft, which will be able to fly up to around 60 miles when it enters service in 2026.
"We are very excited to work together with the leading player in the aerial autonomy industry," said Christophe Hommet, Volocopter's chief engineer for the VoloDrone program. "Near Earth Autonomy has years of experience, shown real results, and is going to help our VoloDrone stay ahead of the curve with autonomous capabilities."
Volocopter has been flight-testing its eVTOL designs for almost 10 years, logging more than 1,000 flight tests with several prototypes. Near Earth says that it has conducted 3,500 flight tests lasting over 2,000 flight hours with its technology installed on several different aircraft types. Its technology is intended to support autonomous aircraft flight without GPS support.
Working with logistics group DB Schenker, which is an investor in the company, Volocopter recently started operational trials to understand how the VoloDrone can be integrated into the cargo delivery process. These are in progress at one of DB Schenker’s facilities in Germany.