FedEx to test drone delivery for more efficient middle-mile logistics

Diving brief:

  • FedEx Express will test mid-mile autonomous drone delivery through a partnership with Elroy Air as the delivery giant seeks to improve operational productivity, efficiency and safety, the companies announced Wednesday.
  • Elroy Air is the operator of the electric hybrid vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) Chaparral aircraft, which FedEx will use in the tests. The aircraft can autonomously pick up between 300 and 500 pounds of cargo and deliver up to 300 miles away.
  • Test flights moving shipments between FedEx sorting sites are scheduled to begin in 2023. The companies will work together to identify test environments both domestically and overseas to conduct flights, Kofi Asante said. , vice president of business development and strategy at Elroy Air.

Overview of the dive:

The Chaparral could potentially address a specific need in FedEx’s network that its current fleet of aircraft and vehicles cannot effectively address today, said Joe Stephens, senior vice president of planning, engineering and of FedEx Express global technology.

Using VTOL aircraft instead would improve both volume availability and service reliability within FedEx’s network, Stephens added. The Chaparral does not require an airport or charging infrastructure, allowing FedEx to move small amounts of volume “more directly” between hubs, ramps and stations.

“If you pick up 50 pieces that go to another station within the radius we’re talking about, that doesn’t justify a plane, and really that doesn’t justify a truck, so what you’re doing is moving through the star network,” Stephens said of a typical mid-mile approach.

The Chaparral uses lightweight cargo pods separate from the aircraft itself and preloaded by ground personnel, according to the Elroy Air website. The pods are recovered autonomously by the aircraft before takeoff. This should reduce workloads for FedEx employees and make operations more efficient, Asante said.

“You want to have high utilization so you don’t spend too much time on the pitch,” Asante said. “You want to be able to quickly turn around and go, almost like a conveyor belt in the sky where you just keep picking up and dropping cargo pods in front.”

Elroy Air aims to figure out how it can efficiently integrate its planes into FedEx ramps and stations as seamlessly as possible for testing, according to Asante. This includes determining with FedEx the freight carried on the Chaparral versus other modes of transportation, the number of aircraft needed per location, and flight take-off and landing details.

Elroy Air has already secured order deals for more than 500 planes with commercial, defense and humanitarian customers, according to a January press release. Mesa Airlines, a regional airline with partners including DHL, United Airlines and American Airlines, intends to order 150 planes for express delivery of packages and healthcare.

“We are seeing increasing demand for same-day and next-day delivery, but many rural communities have been cut off from the national transportation system. Driver shortages and environmental regulations are making this even more difficult,” said Jonathan. Ornstein, president of Mesa Air Group. and CEO, in a statement. “With the Chaparral, we are excited to be able to provide self-driving freight delivery to help reconnect these communities.”

Rival UPS is also exploring the VTOL space, announcing plans last year to purchase 10 electric VTOLs from Beta Technologies that are expected to begin arriving in 2024. Vertical takeoffs and landings allow small spaces in UPS facilities to turn “into a micro air supply network”. Beta founder and CEO Kyle Clark said in a press release. Beta’s plane has a cargo capacity of 1,400 pounds and a range of 250 miles.

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