If your vision of the flying future involves whooshing about in an air taxi while chuckling at the car-bound suckers below, Elroy Air is not here to help. But if you dream of a world of smooth logistics, where emergency supplies, firefighting chemicals, and all the crap you order online moves through the world faster and cheaper than ever, then 2019 might be your year.
“We’re developing a big cargo drone,” says Elroy CEO Dave Merrill. One that will carry 500 pounds and fly 300 miles at a time. One he intends to start testing this year and to put into service come 2020.
The aerospace engineers staffing the San Francisco-based startup have spent the past two years developing that drone, the Chaparral. Like most of the new aircraft being proposed for moving people and their stuff these days, it will take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, using six rotors. Those draw power from a battery mounted near the nose of the catamaran-like craft. When it turns to horizontal flight, a seventh, tail-mounted rotor—Elroy calls it the “pusher”—will go to work, with lift coming from the 29-foot wing. That rotor is powered by a gas-powered internal combustion engine that sits near the tail.
The WIRED Guide to Drones
Cargo won’t go inside the Chaparral itself, instead riding in a pod attached to the aircraft’s belly. When it shows up, the Chaparral uses a grasping mechanism to grab the pod, winches it in until it’s snug against the fuselage, and then it latches on. (Merrill declined to describe the system in detail.) This way, a pod can be fully packed or unpacked on the ground while the drone is carrying a full pod wherever it needs to go. The idea is to minimize turnaround time, and it’s the same thinking that led Airbus to patent a patently absurd idea for detachable, swappable airplane cabins.
As for what goes inside those pods, Merrill points to the potential for moving humanitarian supplies, like food, water, and blood. But he sees commercial cargo as the biggest opportunity, as in helping move all the stuff you order online: clothes, books, gadgets, whatever. So, while the Chaparral could fit into a landing zone the size of six car parking spaces, it’s not about to land in your front yard. Merrill is targeting what he calls “internal legs.” So when you order your new smartphone, an ocean freighter or cargo plane takes it from the factory in China to the US, along with a billion other things. Then, Elroy would carry a portion of those goods to the distribution center nearest you. From there, a smaller vehicle, maybe a van, maybe a robot reminiscent of a toaster, would bring your package to your door. Merrill says he has had quite a bit of interest from potential customers.
Like a similar concept from Boeing, Elroy’s model could also work well for places that are hard to reach: small islands, oil rigs, areas with poor road infrastructure, and places hit by natural disasters. “We don’t need an airport to be at point A or point B,” Merrill says.
Elroy will, however, need to accomplish a lot more testing before it can start running its aircraft in a commercial service. That program should begin this year, gradually proving that the aircraft is safe, reliable, and as capable as the team says. Then comes certification, likely to be an expensive and time-consuming process. And then building a sustainable business in a market overflowing with would-be players. But with a relatively simple design and a focused business plan, the company looks to be starting from solid ground.