Helicopter operator Bristow this week stepped up its plans to incorporate advanced air mobility services, with a commitment to add autonomous air cargo vehicles to its fleet. In a joint announcement with Elroy Air on July 13, the Houston-based group committed to buying 100 Chaparral hybrid-electric VTOL aircraft.
Under a letter of intent signed with San Francisco-based Elroy Air, Bristow is preordering the Chaparral, which is expected to be certified for commercial operations in 2023. Elroy says the vehicle will transform air cargo services, not only because it can fly without a pilot on board, but also because it will drop off and pick up cargo robotically in a matter of minutes—without any interaction with a human operator.
“Leveraging our expertise as both a helicopter and unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operator, we plan to use the Elroy Air Chaparral aircraft to fill an increasing demand for the movement of time-sensitive cargo for logistics, health care, and energy applications,” said Bristow executive vice president and chief transformation officer Dave Stepanek. “Bristow has 70-plus years of experience moving people and cargo. We expect to leverage that experience to usher in a new era of vertical lift operations and meet the express shipping cargo needs in cities and regions without relying on existing or new airport infrastructure.”
The Chaparral is designed to carry up to 500 pounds (226 kilograms) of cargo over a 300-mile (482-kilometer) range. While it is made to fly autonomously, it can also be piloted remotely if necessary to comply with local aviation authorities. Its design features a high wing with eight vertical lift rotors and four forward-facing propellers for cruise flight.
Unlike most air taxis and other eVTOLs, the Chaparral will have a hybrid-electric powertrain, which will give the aircraft more range than would be possible using only electric power. A 150-kilowatt gas turbine will generate power for the propulsion system and charge the battery during flight, eliminating the downtime otherwise needed to recharge batteries between flights.
“The Chaparral was built for the challenges we’re facing today. Demand for rapid logistics is outpacing today’s infrastructure,” said Kofi Asante, Elroy Air’s vice president of business development and strategy. “The Chaparral creates a ‘fast-lane’ for middle-mile logistics to an unprecedented range of locations that can serve remote, rural areas and can fly over rough terrain."
Elroy Air is already working with FedEx to start testing the Chaparral autonomous air cargo system for moving shipments between sorting locations, the company announced earlier this year. FedEx plans to begin flight testing with Chaparral in 2023. Elroy has also said it holds agreements with several prospective customers for commercial, military, and humanitarian operations.
An earlier prototype of the Chaparral aircraft performed its first test flight in 2019, and the company plans to begin test flights of a full-scale prototype with the U.S. Air Force later this year. Elroy Air has said it aims to achieve type certification for the Chaparral under FAA's Special Class 21.17 (b) rules in 2023.