No pilot? No problem. Bristow Group Inc., one of the world’s leading vertical air services companies that uses mainly helicopters, is turning to fast-growing autonomous cargo drone company Elroy Air for relief.
The two companies announced Wednesday they have signed a letter of intent for Bristow to pre-order 100 Elroy Air Chaparral pilotless hybrid-electric cargo vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft.
The move is aimed at broadening Bristow’s portfolio beyond its energy industry and search and rescue businesses to additional markets as well as an opportunity to enter a fast-growing segment of cargo transportation.
“We want to expand our market into middle mile market cargo distribution both for moving new markets and for moving product for our current energy companies that we service,” said Bristow Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer Dave Stepanek in an interview. “ A lot of it is really heavy and needs to moved by large trucks and by boats. But there are going to be opportunities amongst those logistics to move the type of payloads the Chaparral can do and the Chaparral’s payload and range performance fits our market that w have today and the ability to expand to that middle mile cargo.
Kofi Asante, Elroy Air vice president of business development and strategy, points out the last-mile delivery market for cargo weighing five pounds or less is becoming crowded among VTOL and drone operators, so his company’s servicing the middle-mile, larger cargo needs is indeed fertile territory.
“It seems to be where a lot of the attention for groups like FedEx
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 pre-loaded pod.
The pod awaiting pickup 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.
The Chaparral features distributed electric propulsion, with eight vertical lift rotors, four forward propellers for cruise flight, a high-wing airframe configuration. Its airframe is fabricated using carbon composite materials.
While able to fly autonomously, the Chaparral can also be piloted remotely when necessary to comply with government regulations.
Indeed, Elroy Air CEO David Merrill adds the Chaparral can takeoff, land, drop off and pickup cargo in the sort of inaccessible places Bristow serves.
“Getting out and back to offshore oil platforms, getting to austere locations where the roads may be very minimal or challenging because of weather or surface conditions or even other dangers is something that makes VTOL aerial delivery appealing and necessary in some cases, so this is a way they can expand their capabilities there with our system,” Merrill told Forbes.com.
Where we operate in West Africa, you have road issues and other constraints,” noted Stepanek. “We believe this product is going to be well suited for that. As a matter of fact that’s going to be our target launch market for the Chaparral.”
The ability to operate autonomously, or by remote control is also a key factor in mitigating the ongoing pilot shortage, said Stepanek, especially when operating in less attractive locales such as “remote locations like Africa, the Highlands and islands of Scotland, places in Australia where it’s difficult for us to recruit pilots in to live in those remote locations because of the lifestyle choices they have to make. They’re away from their families at a much higher rate than traditional pilot would be in a commercial application.”
South San Francisco, Calif.-startup Elroy Air’s takeoff has been almost as straight line as its aircraft’s trajectory.
Last August Elroy Air announced a $40 million Series A round of funding led by Marlinspike Capital with participation from Lockheed Martin Ventures and Prosperity7 Ventures and existing investors Catapult Ventures, DiamondStream Partners, Side X Side Management, Shield Capital Partners and Precursor Ventures.
In January, Elroy Air, named for the son in the 1960’s futuristic animated show “The Jetsons,” unveiled a demonstration version of the Chaparral and in March announced FedEx subsidiary FedEx Express will begin testing the aircraft in 2023.
To date, Elroy Air has landed agreements to supply 900 aircraft to commercial, defense and humanitarian customers.
Merrill adds demand for aircraft such as the Chaparral is growing in both the cargo and air taxi markets. While many companies have chosen the air taxi route, Elroy is firmly committed to the cargo market noting, “We made our bet years ago and we’re just heads down trying to build the best system to serve this unmet need.”
Elroy Air customers such as Bristow Group will have to wait a bit before taking delivery of their aircraft.
The company is currently building pre-production versions of the Chaparral “for envelope expansion and capability demonstrations with the Air Force and commercial partners,” Merrill explained. “Right now our plan is next year to go into production of the first customer-dedicated systems. We’re arranging the order book who gets which vehicle.”
With that schedule, immediate needs to mitigate the pilot shortage won’t be met, but Bristow’s Dave Stepanek says the company is looking forward to their arrival, saying, “We’re just delighted to be part of this. We think it’s very exciting. We want to lead the operations of advanced air mobility.”
That’s vertical integration.