Every year in September the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) announces their selections for IDEA: the International Design Excellence Awards. A small group of new products and systems are recognized as the most innovative designs, with the most world-changing potential of the year. This year the Elroy Air Chaparral — our autonomous cargo aircraft— won Gold in the Transportation category.
This is a big deal.
We’re honored! Looking back at previous Gold winners in this category you’ll find the BMW i3 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. As a startup with a team of 20, we beat multinational aerospace and automotive companies to win this award.
Our award winning aerial cargo platform — the Chaparral — is built to expand the reach of express logistics. Over 1 billion people today do not have access to rapid delivery of essential goods. We are designing the Chaparral to help improve quality of life around the world by enabling point-to-point aerial cargo transport anywhere on the planet, no airports needed.
The Chaparral’s autonomous cargo handling and flight capabilities are designed to integrate into today’s logistics networks seamlessly. Minimizing human interaction and enabling rapid logistics in more places is increasingly important during COVID, and we are building our system to safely and rapidly serve communities anywhere with nimble aerial cargo.
The Chaparral is one part cutting-edge flying machine and another part modern warehouse robot. Warehouse robots became well-known in 2012 when Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, an innovative startup that had developed an automated way to enable a highly controlled and efficient logistics warehouse operation. Powered flight as we know it today began in 1903 when the Wright Brothers flew their Wright Flyer successfully for the first time in North Carolina.
There’s an idea called the adjacent possible — the concept that at any moment in time there is a unique frontier of inventions that are now enabled by the current state of everything else. Early powered flight needed an engine that could deliver enough thrust, and that was light enough to be carried aloft — it was a critical enabling technology that made flight an adjacent possible. Logistics robots needed package tracking and a networked awareness of the state of an entire warehouse.
The Chaparral is now adjacent-possible, powered by a few key enabling technologies that have recently matured:
Electric Powertrain: The era of the electric car has begun, with 1.7 million EVs predicted to be purchased worldwide in 2020. But something else has emerged from this acceleration in EV development — the dawn of the practical electric airplane. Using similar but even lighter-weight motors, motor control circuits, and battery systems, electric and hybrid-electric aircraft are now feasible. This means quieter, cleaner flight and — with multiple redundant vertical rotors like a big version of a consumer drone — takeoffs and landings from anywhere. This flexibility in operating locations is critical to power the next step in logistics.
Machine Perception + Software: Robots that move around the world need to be aware of their surroundings to avoid bumping into things. Recent developments in LiDAR and Radar perception for the autonomous vehicle industry, and autonomy software capabilities will allow the Chaparral to navigate safely on the ground (the warehouse part) and through the air without in-flight collisions.
Digital Design & Validation Tools: Diverging from the first 100 years of aerospace, these days a small team like ours can design, validate, and iterate a complex system like Chaparral using software and simulation environments far in advance of building and flying the actual machine. The set of tools that we use — some off-the-shelf, some custom and developed in-house — allowed our 20-person startup to successfully accomplish first flights of the full-scale Chaparral demonstrator in the Fall of 2019, a feat that only a few teams around the world have achieved at this scale of electric/hybrid aircraft. The upshot: we are outpacing even large aerospace companies as we push Chaparral to the finish line in this exciting new chapter of autonomous vertical takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) aircraft.
Today’s enabling technologies set the conditions for innovation, but that isn’t the whole story: Also differentiating the Chaparral is our obsession with developing features and operator interactions to meet the customer need — from commercial logistics, to humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and more. In startup vernacular, this is called “customer development.” It’s the hard work of Product and Design, and in Aerospace this work must be in lock-step with Engineering because in the end it needs to fly!
We have been obsessed with getting the Chaparral’s capabilities and interactions right since the early days of Elroy Air, and its functionality — especially the automated way it navigates on the ground to pick up and drop off cargo (article) — reflect hard-won lessons we learned by spending time with our customers and a ton of prototyping and iterating. This work has resulted in a host of inventions built into a vehicle that will create a huge leap forward in logistics.
In our San Francisco warehouse next to a nightclub we are creating the future of high-performing logistics. Chaparral will enable metaphoric conveyor belts through the sky, to speed up the delivery of goods to people all around the world — regardless of the terrain or traffic conditions on the ground. The diverse, talented team at Elroy Air is going to be heads-down for a while as we complete the development of the Chaparral and get it out into the world to serve people. Thanks to the IDSA for recognizing our work!
— The Elroy Air Team