Elroy Air today unveiled what it described as a preproduction version of its Chaparral C1 VTOL cargo transporter. The company says the hybrid-electric autonomous aircraft will offer the express freight delivery industry significantly greater capability than existing smaller drones, by carrying loads of between 300 and 500 pounds over distances of up to 300 miles.
In its announcement, Elroy said it holds agreements from prospective customers in the commercial, defense, and humanitarian sectors covering the delivery of 500 Chaparrals with a potential value of $1 billion. It named American Airlines regional affiliate Mesa Airlines as one of these customers, reporting that the carrier intends to operate 150 aircraft on behalf of American, as well as United Airlines and DHL.
“The Chaparral is an important part of the future of express logistics,” said Elroy Air co-founder and CEO David Merrill. “It is built for full end-to-end automation, and it will safely and efficiently make express shipping possible in thousands of new places. It’s a delivery drone that’s faster than ground transport and lower cost than today’s traditional aircraft.”
According to Mesa chairman and CEO Jonathan Ornstein, deploying the autonomous Chaparral is a means to rapidly expand the capacity of an air freight industry that is struggling to keep up with rising demand. He cited pilot shortages and environmental requirements as factors pointing to the need for a new approach that will connect underserved communities.
Mesa Airlines has previously invested in Sweden's Heart Aerospace to support its plans to bring a 19-seat all-electric fixed-wing aircraft to market. It is also one of several launch customers for Archer's four-passenger eVTOL vehicles.
Ayr Logistics has signed up to add 100 Chaparrals to its fleet, which it deploys to support humanitarian operations in over 45 countries with agencies including the United Nations and the World Food Program. “What aid agencies spend on transportation is money that they are not spending on food, medicine, and other emergency supplies,” said the company’s chief development officer, Stephen Lyons. “Moving to unmanned, aerial cargo vehicles will make a huge difference to our cost structure and the risk profile of our operations. We fly in difficult terrain and difficult conditions. We don’t always have the luxury of a runway or even personnel at some locations.”
In August 2021, Lockheed Martin Ventures led a $40 million Series A funding round for the California-based start-up. Subsequently, in the fourth quarter of last year, the U.S. Air Force awarded Elroy a $1.7 million Tactical Funding Increase Award contract to support work in developing a concept of operations for the Chaparral in a variety of military missions as part of the wider Afwerx Agility Prime program.
“Agility Prime sees value in electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles as well as hybridization that captures the benefits of electric along with the opportunity for greater range,” said Afwerk director Colonel Nathan Diller. “The Air Force has also actively explored different approaches to modularity, different payloads, and ultimately a way to reduce the number of humans necessary for logistics touchpoints.”
In 2019, Elroy Air flew an earlier prototype of the lift-and-cruise Chaparral. It has previously said that the full-scale prototype is set to start flight tests with the U.S. Air Force in 2022.
The Chaparral C1 aircraft unveiled this week features eight vertical lift fans, four distributed electric propulsors for cruise flight, and a high wing. It is designed to fit in a 40-foot shipping container or a C-130 military cargo aircraft to be positioned for remote operations.