Innovation That Matters

Elroy Air’s autonomous eVTOL drone is getting very close to deployment for middle-mile delivery | Photo source FedEx / Elroy Air

Drones for middle-mile delivery

Mobility & Transport

The autonomous drones can carry cargo up to 300 miles

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Spotted: When we think about drone delivery, we tend to think about last-mile delivery – from the store or fulfilment centre to the customer. However, FedEx is now looking at using drones for the middle mile – from port to warehouse or distribution centre. The giant logistics company is partnering with hybrid vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft manufacturer Elroy Air to develop autonomous drones capable of delivering cargo weighing from 136 to 227 kilogrammes over distances of up to 300 miles.

The middle mile delivery will be handled by Elroy’s Chaparral hybrid-electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft. Chaparral is equipped with all-electric propulsors, a turboshaft jet engine, and a generator, which is used to boost power during take-off and landing. The Chaparral uses lightweight cargo pods that are pre-loaded. These are then autonomously picked up by the aircraft, reducing the human workload. The drone aircraft also does not require airports or charging stations, allowing it to deliver to a wide range of locations.

Elroy Air is currently working on ways to integrate its aircraft into FedEx’s existing system. This will include tackling logistical issues such as how to decide what freight goes on the Chaparral, how many aircraft will be needed at each location, and how to organise flight times and loads for maximum efficiency.

The VTOL market is heating up, and while Elroy’s Chaparral is out ahead on development of middle-distance drones, other companies are also using drones to streamline logistics. Kawasaki recently completed proof-of-concept testing on its autonomous drone helicopter with its own last-mile delivery bot. And startup Natilus is developing an autonomous cargo plane that will be able to carry up to 3,855 kilogrammes over a distance of 1,667 kilometres. 

Written By: Lisa Magloff




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