Autonomous air transport startup Elroy Air completes first flights of large cargo VTOL

SF-based Elroy Air hopes to transform bulk air cargo shipping with its “Chaparral” vertical take-off and landing craft, the first version of which will be able to carry 250 pounds of cargo as far as 300 miles. The startup, which was founded in 2016 by experienced professionals with track records of working in UAS (uncrewed aerial systems) has just completed its first flights of the Chaparral prototype test craft.

The 1,215-pound aircraft is a full-scale testing version of the eventual planned commercially deployed Chaparral system, and managed to fly to a height of 10 feet, hovering for just over a minute before returning in a controlled landing. The VTOL was piloted remotely by the company’s lead pilot during the test, which took place at McMillan Airfield near Camp Roberts in central California.

Elroy Air raised $9.2 million in funding in February, but it mostly has been quietly making progress on bringing its prototype to life after debuting the initial design in 2017. The startup’s goal is to “decouple air cargo from airports,” according to CEO David Merrill — which means letting big VTOLs do the work that small cargo planes currently handle for air freight.

The specific approach Elroy Air is taking makes use of hybrid-electric power trains for its aircraft, which help them travel longer distances versus fully electric VTOLs, while retaining better fuel efficiency versus vehicles that only use internal combustion engines. The aircraft is also designed to work with pre-packed pods, so that it can easily and quickly swap its cargo for another shipment at its destination for the return flight.

The company will now carry out further tests of its prototype following this successful hover demonstration, and it’s looking to begin some small commercial service launches as early as next year if all goes well.