Autonomous deliveries may soon take flight.
FedEx Express, a subsidiary of the logistics giant, said Wednesday it is working with Bay Area startup Elroy Air on using vertical takeoff and landing aircraft in cargo operations.
The two companies have already worked together for the past two years. In the next phase of their partnership, they'll pursue aircraft certification with the intention of starting flight testing next year.
Elroy Air unveiled its Chaparral eVTOL aircraft this year. It's designed to carry 300 to 500 pounds of cargo and deliver it as far as 300 miles. FedEx envisions the aircraft as a linchpin of middle-mile logistics. The two companies will move shipments between distribution hubs.
At a time when supply chain complications and logistics bottlenecks are common, at least in part because of a boom in e-commerce, the companies view air travel as part of the long-term solution. Elroy claims its aircraft could reach loading docks five times faster than a conventional big rig.
"When you're not limited by challenging infrastructure, traffic or airports, logistics can reach more people faster than ever before," Kofi Asante, Elroy Air's vice president of business development and strategy, said in a written statement. "We look forward to working together to create a new future for how we get goods to people around the world."
Amid a crowded field of air mobility startups, Elroy Air has differentiated itself with a focus on automation and delivery. Companies such as Toyota-backed Joby Aviation, Daimler's Volocopter, and Archer Aviation are focused on piloted operations and carrying passengers.
In some respects, hauling only goods can simplify automated operations. On the ground, delivery startup Nuro became the first self-driving tech company to receive exemptions from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, in part because it involved zero-passenger operations. Whether a parallel exists for urban air mobility companies remains to be seen.
Elroy Air has raised $56 million to date. Investors include Catapult Ventures, Lockheed Martin Ventures, Marlinspike Capital and others.