Houston-based Bristow Group, which got its start as an international operator of helicopters but now bills itself as a vertical flight solutions provider, is looking to speed up the introduction of new vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft to its fleet.
Bristow on Tuesday announced it placed deposits for early deliveries of five Elroy Air Chaparral VTOL cargo drones, part of the company’s letter of intent to preorder 100 Chaparral systems in July 2022. The move ensures Bristow will receive some of the first commercially certified Elroy aircraft off the production line and will add the first VTOL cargo models to its aircraft portfolio.
Elroy expects the first deliveries of Chaparral will happen in 2025. Bristow, which already operates a global network of helicopter services, plans to deploy the aircraft internationally to support advanced air mobility (AAM) use cases in cargo logistics, healthcare, and energy.
A Bristow spokesperson told FLYING the early stage of Chaparral’s development and certification make it difficult to pinpoint an exact delivery date. But the company sees it becoming an integral part of its global fleet to compliment its services in existing markets.
“There is an increasing demand for the movement of time-sensitive cargo for logistics, healthcare and energy applications,” said Dave Stepanek, executive vice president and chief transformation officer at Bristow. “Securing these early delivery positions underscores our commitment to leading the [AAM] market and builds on our 75-plus year legacy of vertical lift innovations. At Bristow, we’re excited to usher in a new era of vertical lift operations and collaborate with Elroy Air to meet the emerging market of express shipping cargo in cities and regions, without relying on existing or new airport infrastructure.”
Elroy’s Chaparral, unveiled in January 2022, is a hybrid-electric, lift-plus-cruise VTOL drone with a 300 pound payload—far larger than most drones—which makes it ideal for heavy cargo operations. Those could one day include middle-mile commercial logistics, industrial cargo services, humanitarian aid shipments, and aerial lines of support for U.S. Navy ships and military bases.
Chaparral has two core components: the aircraft and its cargo pods. The drone itself cruises at 143 mph (125 knots) and can fly up to 300 sm (260 nm) —about the distance between Houston and the U.S.-Mexico border. A hybrid-electric powertrain powers eight vertical and four forward propellers, relying on both conventional turbines and electric propulsion for flexible fueling. With a 26-foot wingspan and a length of 19 feet, the airframe can be configured to fit inside a 40-foot shipping container or the cargo hold of another aircraft.
Chaparral also comes with two different cargo pods designed to load heavy or light cargo. An autonomous ground navigation system uses advanced perception and robotic technology to guide the aircraft to the pod, which is intended to be preloaded by ground personnel. Cargo loaders can then sit back and watch as the aircraft’s lift-and-latch cargo handling mechanism grabs the pod entirely on its own.
The automated ground navigation and cargo handling systems allow Chaparral to retrieve cargo before takeoff, release it after landing, and taxi to the next pod by itself. That minimizes turnaround time and operator interaction on the ground, creating what Elroy calls a “bidirectional conveyor belt through the sky.”
“Getting to this stage of the process—reserved delivery positions secured with deposits—underscores our relationship built with Bristow and we are extremely pleased to be at this stage in development,” said Kofi Asante, vice president of business development and strategy for Elroy. “Bristow’s expertise is a strong catalyst for bringing new aircraft like ours to the market. Their rotorcraft expertise, global footprint, and innovative mindset have made them a strong partner and we are excited for the next chapter together.”
Chaparral adds to Bristow’s other VTOL purchases, of which it has made a heap over the past 24 months. The company has orders for up to 55 Beta Technologies Alia-250s, up to 50 Vertical Aerospace VA-X4s, 100 eVTOL aircraft from Embraer subsidiary Eve Air Mobility, and between 20 and 50 Overair Butterfly aircraft. It also plans to buy 50 Lilium Jets and agreed to provide maintenance for the German company’s Florida network in addition to its future networks in the U.S. and Europe.
As of January, Elroy has sold more than 900 Chaparral systems representing more than $2 billion in purchase demand. According to SMG Consulting’s AAM Reality Index (ARI), that places it behind only Eve, Vertical, and China’s EHang among the major AAM players. It ranks seventh in overall ARI rating, which measures a company’s ability to produce thousands of units of commercial products per year. Rival Beta ranks second, with Vertical, Lilium, and Textron’s Pipistrel—all of whom look to serve the cargo industry—also in the mix.