CFG’s very own John McDonagh predicted great things for California Bay-based Elroy back in early 2019, already (CFG reported: https://www.cargoforwarder.eu/2019/03/12/cargo-drones-marching-forward/). Now the aerospace and logistics company, Elroy Air, which scored USD 40 million in funding for its autonomous cargo aircraft last August, (backed by investors such as Marlinspike Capital, Lockheed Martin Ventures, and Prosperity7 Ventures, among others), is preparing to pilot middle-mile logistics operations with the world’s largest express logistics company, Fedex.
“Our mission is to enable same-day shipping to every person on the planet,” Elroy Air co-founder, Dave Merrill, stated in an early 2019 interview, “That led us to build a very
different kind of aircraft to anything anyone has ever built before.” The design is one intended “to upgrade express logistics around the world,” with the aim of being cheaper to run than
conventional, comparable-in-size aircraft, and with more capabilities (viz vertical take-off). The result is the “Chaparral”: a large, unmanned cargo drone which carries its freight in a
removable container constituting the underside of the aircraft. It can autonomously drop one cargo container and pick up another. The Chaparral’s first flight took place in August 2019, when
Elroy numbered exactly 16 employees.
We can be the first to do it well
From that first flight, the company has progressed and announced its pre-production Chaparral vehicle C1 in January this year: “the first end-to-end autonomous vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aerial cargo system, designed for aerial transport of 300-500 lbs [130-225kg] of goods over a 300 mile [480 km] range for commercial, humanitarian, and defense logistics,” a company video explained. In it, Merrill declared: “We have the technology […], the team […] and the customers who are ready to use Chaparral systems. It’s an amazing moment where all this is possible, and we can be the first to do it well.” Elroy’s Chaparral can carry out longer-range flights without the need for additional infrastructure, such as airports or charging stations.
Working with the Big Boys
And what better customer to get ahead with, than the world’s largest express logistics company, FedEx Express? The two have been collaborating since January 2020, developing and sharing use-case data and requirements. They recently declared their intent now, to go ahead with autonomous drone test flights covering middle-mile cargo delivery. Middle-mile means that the cargo is transferred between businesses rather than directly to end-customers, as is the case with last-mile deliveries. In what is hailed in the press release as “a first of its kind agreement in the U.S., FedEx Express will develop plans to test Elroy Air’s Chaparral autonomous air cargo system within the company’s middle-mile logistics operations, moving shipments between sortation locations. This is the latest initiative from FedEx in its effort to explore and adopt emerging technologies across.” These test flights are due to start in 2023.
Proud to collaborate
Kofi Asante, Elroy Air’s VP of Business Development and Strategy, stated: “We are proud to work with FedEx to build the next generation of express logistics. When you’re not limited by challenging infrastructure, traffic, or airports, logistics can reach more people, faster than ever before. We look forward to working together to create a new future for how we get goods to people around the world.”
Joe Stephens, Senior VP of Global Planning, Engineering, and Technology at FedEx Express, underlined: “FedEx was built on innovation, and we are always looking toward new technologies to help enhance the logistics industry through improved safety, efficiency, and customer service. We look forward to continued testing and learning throughout our collaboration with Elroy Air.”
Not only has the recent “exponential growth of e-commerce […] accelerated the demand for reliable, efficient transportation and logistics solutions,” but the Chaparral, given its hybrid-electric design, could also support the 600,000-strong FedEx team in achieving its 2040 carbon-neutral operations goal, if tests are successful and commercial operations begin properly.
The competition is wide awake
FedEx is exploring a number of future technology avenues. For example, it partnered with Reliable Robotics Corp. in SEP20, to work on converting small piston-engine airplanes to fly pilotless. Also, in collaboration with the Future Mobility Campus Ireland Air (FMCI) consortium and drone operator Skyports, FedEx Express carried out last-mile drone delivery flight tests last October, in a month-long trial in Ireland.
Meanwhile, FedEx’s competitors are also not sleeping when it comes to drone delivery developments. UPS began collaborating with Beta Technologies early last year, already, looking to carry out middle-mile flights of up to 250 miles [402 km], and a testing smaller drones for last-mile deliveries. Amazon, too, has long tested drone deliveries, with the media seemingly uncovering “secret drone tests” at various locations every year since 2016.
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