FedEx partners with Elroy Air to test pilotless package drone

FedEx Corp. is partnering with Elroy Air, a startup that makes a large cargo drone, to test moving packages by air with no pilot on board.

Elroy Air’s Chaparral prototype flying autonomously at Camp Roberts, CA.
Photo: Elroy Air

FedEx plans to begin experimental flights next year using Elroy Air’s Chaparral aircraft to shuttle packages from one sorting hub to another, the companies said. The hybrid-powered electric aircraft can fly about 300 miles with as much as 500 pounds of cargo in a detachable pod.

“FedEx was built on innovation, and it continues to be an integral part of our culture and our business strategy,” Joe Stephens, a senior vice president for the company’s Express unit, said in an interview. “This is just another example where we’re innovating to drive efficiency, safety and reliability and support customer demand.”

Dozens of startups, including Archer Aviation Inc. and Joby Aviation Inc., are seeking to build electric aircraft that take off like helicopters and fly like small planes. Most are going after the passenger market and will start off with a pilot before eventually flying autonomously. Elroy Air is pursuing the cargo market exclusively and has designed its aircraft to fly without a pilot from the start.

Elroy Air, which is doing work in the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime program, uses a hybrid of electricity and fuel to power the aircraft. The combination gives the aircraft more range and eliminates the need for building charging stations, said Kofi Asante, vice president of strategy and business development for the South San Francisco-based startup.

‘Minimal infrastructure’

“Our goal is to have minimal infrastructure,” Asante said.

The Chaparral has eight battery-powered rotors that lift the aircraft vertically like a helicopter and another four electric rotors that propel the drone forward like a small plane. A gas-turbine generator onboard provides electricity to recharge the batteries.

The wingspan of almost 28 feet means the craft can take off and land from the parking lot of a facility, Stephens said. That will speed up deliveries between sorting hubs and delivery stations. The aircraft will also work well in rural areas and for island hopping in places like Hawaii and the Caribbean, he said. He declined to discuss the potential cost savings of the remotely monitored flights.

“The beauty of this is that it gives us an autonomous solution to middle-mile transportation with new technology that supports our 2040 sustainability objectives,” he said.

The two companies haven’t decided yet where they will begin the test flights. It may be overseas, where restrictions are more relaxed than in the U.S., which has the world’s busiest airspace. The startup probably will begin commercial flights abroad, Asante said.

FedEx is also working with Reliable Robotics Corp. to convert small piston-engine airplanes to fly without a pilot.

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