FedEx Express is partnering with California-based Elroy Air to develop and test an autonomous hybrid electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for cargo in 2023.
The announcement Wednesday by the FedEx Corp. (NYSE: FDX) subsidiary is the latest signal that the global package delivery industry is interested in exploring the potential of eVTOL and advanced air mobility.
In what the company described as a “first-of-its-kind agreement,” FedEx Express and Elroy will test Chaparral, an uncrewed, autonomous aircraft, “within the company’s middle-mile logistics operations,” moving shipments between FedEx sorting locations.
The aircraft is described as “the first end-to-end autonomous vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aerial cargo system.”
Driven by the recent explosion of e-commerce triggered by the COVID epidemic, the package delivery industry is considering new technologies to help improve the supply chain.
Increasing demand for same and next-day delivery is not always being met in many rural communities. Elroy says Chaparral is meant to help solve these kinds of challenges.
Elroy—named after the boy character on the classic animated TV series The Jetsons —unveiled its pre-production Chaparral aircraft last January. The aircraft is designed to autonomously pick up 300 to 500 pounds of cargo and deliver it by air as far as 300 sm.
It’s also “capable of longer-range flights without the need for additional infrastructure, such as airports or charging stations,” FedEx Express said in a news release.
Like a Helicopter and a Bush Plane
Elroy says Chaparral is designed to fly like a hybrid between a helicopter and a bush plane. Its features include:
- eight vertical lift fans
- four distributed electric propulsors for forward flight
- a high-wing airframe configuration
- a full carbon composite airframe
- a turbine-based hybrid-electric powertrain
Also, Chaparral is intended to fit inside a 40-foot shipping container or a Lockheed Martin C-130 cargo aircraft for quick deployment.
Elroy said it has secured purchase agreements for more than 500 aircraft from “commercial, defense, and humanitarian customers” totaling more than $1 billion.
Package Delivery Industry Explores Electric Flight
The FedEx Express announcement follows other international delivery companies that are collaborating with electric aircraft developers. UPS (NYSE: UPS) subsidiary UPS Flight Forward announced last year its partnership with Beta Technologies to use its piloted Alia eVTOL to takeoff and land at UPS facilities in small and mid-sized markets.
Germany-based DHL, a division of Deutsche Post (OTC: DPSGY), also announced last year an order for 12 fully electric Alice aircraft from Arlington, Washington-based Eviation. An Alice test article has not yet made its first flight and continues to undergo taxi testing.
DHL Express said its interest in electric flight is driven by improving the company’s carbon footprint toward a future with zero-emission logistics.