Ed Garsten Senior Contributor Mar 30, 2022, 08:00am EDT
Barely two months after Elroy Air unveiled a demonstration version of an autonomous, hybrid electric vertical take off and landing drone designed specifically to move cargo, the San Francisco Bay-area startup said Wednesday shipping giant FedEx Corp. will put the aircraft through real-life testing.
In a joint announcement, the companies said FedEx subsidiary FedEx Express will begin testing the aircraft called the Chaparral in 2023 within its middle-mile operations—a range of 300-500 miles.
Demand for ecommerce shipments is expected to sharply increase according to Joe Stephens, senior vice president, global planning, engineering and technology, FedEx Express.
“We had forecast to see 100 million ecommerce shipments in the U.S. by 2026,” Stephens said in an interview. “In a post Covid environment we now expect to exceed 101 million ecommerce shipments per day in the U.S. in the calendar year 2022.”
The two companies have worked together since 2020 with FedEx providing Elroy Air insight into its needs and preferences. The test flights, scheduled to begin early next year, will be aimed at providing answers to deeper questions such how the aircraft interacts with FedEx facilities, staff and network and which routes make the most sense.
In addition, according to Stephens, during the test flights the company will look at the Chaparral’s reliability, range and speed and overall ability “to meet our customers’ expectations.”
Elroy Air CEO David Merrill told Forbes.com the upcoming demonstration flights mark a key milestone in its relationship with FedEx.
“One of the ways that I think Elroy Air and FedEx resonate is FedEx has always been about air cargo, that’s their DNA,” said Merrill. “We’ve always viewed FedEx as a valued partner.”
The Chaparral is designed to pick up a pod loaded with 300-500 pounds of cargo, fly it to a destination as far as 300 miles then drop it off, ready to pick up another load.
The pod waiting to be picked up communicates with the drone via a set of radio frequency beacons which assists the aircraft in triangulating the pod’s position. The only humans involved are those packing and unpacking the pods. The Chaparral does not require an airport for takeoff or landing.
“That whole process is pretty exciting for FedEx because right now there are a number of environments that they may not necessarily be able to service with express shipping options,” said Kofi Asante, Elroy Air vice president of business development and strategy in an interview.
Indeed, FedEx Express’s Joe Stephens pointed to the Chaparral’s relatively few infrastructure requirements as a key reason for looking at the drones to broaden the company’s services.
“You don’t need airport infrastructure and given the design of the Chaparral itself you don’t need dedicated charging stations,” Stephens said. “We can use this from our hub to hub, ramp to ramp station to station, hub to station, ramp to station- type opportunities.”
Neither Assante nor Merrill would be specific as to the exact number of aircraft to be used for the test flights. Assante indicated a “handful” would roll out next year through support from the U.S. Air Force’s Air Agility Prime program.
“We expect one or two of them for this deployment, for this demonstration,” said Asante. “Past that, as quick as we can start to produce them and get them over to FedEx.”
Air Agility Prime is a U.S. Department of the Air Force program that includes a partnership with the U.S. Army centered on accelerating development of the commercial electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft industry.
The companies haven’t revealed the duration of the test flight program but Elroy Air’s David Merrill is just elated to be able to reveal they’re starting at all, telling Forbes.com, “To have this partnership officially kicking off and now being able to share this first step publicly feels like a validation of something we knew and we’ve been working to build for years now.”