Drone Pilot SchoolThe aerospace startup that’s revolutionizing resource transport | NOVA

July 8, 2021by helo-10
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Imagine a world where instead of taking a bus or train to work you could take a flying car. In this world, goods and supplies can be delivered with ease to remote locations that are difficult to access or are in desperate need of supplies after a natural disaster. Kofi Asante, vice president of strategy and business development at Elroy Air, dreams of finding new ways to serve these communities. Asante’s goal is to democratize access to resources by changing how they’re transported, using less infrastructure and hybrid-powered autonomous aircraft.

Featured in the NOVA documentary Great Electric Airplane Race, the aerospace startup Elroy Air is building autonomous flying cargo systems that utilize electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) technology. However, these are not your average consumer drones. With the advancement of eVTOL technology, cargo drones may autonomously pick up and drop off cargo pods on the ground without human intervention. These unpiloted flying cargo systems run on hybrid-electric engines and can transport 300 pounds of cargo for 300 miles at 140 miles per hour to remote locations that have previously been difficult to service through traditional delivery methods.

Their secret? The space required for Elroy Air’s hybrid-electric Chaparral drone to takeoff and land is less than the size of a helipad and does not rely on ground infrastructure that traditional aircraft require. The advancement of hybrid-electric aircraft would also lower carbon dioxide emissions and help meet the European Commission objectives for aviation’s environmental impact by 2050, notes the National Academy of Engineering.

Traditionally, airport owners must have access to thousands of acres of land to build a commercial airport.

Infrastructure is essential to an expanding human population, but this development can also negatively impact the environment. Clearing land and building roads to support airport facilities can fragment habitat or cut off a migration route for endangered species. However, environmental concerns are not always taken into consideration during the design, planning and construction of infrastructure projects, notes World Wildlife Fund.

When there is not enough existing land available to build the terminals, runways, control towers, baggage systems, gate operations, and lighting systems necessary for an airport to traditionally function, land is often seized through eminent domain.

Under this legal framework, the U.S. federal government can seize private property and convert it into public use. The government may only exercise this power under the Fifth Amendment if they provide just compensation to property owners. While advocates of eminent domain note its ability to support local economic growth, supply cities with drinking water, and protect national security interests, others observe that it has historically “forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of people, most of them poor, politically weak, or members of racial and ethnic minorities,” reports Ilya Somin, in an analysis for the Washington Post.

When deciding what projects to focus on, one of the core issues Asante takes into account is social impact.

“I have been fortunate to be able to launch projects and companies that focus on enhancing the well-being of the communities they serve,” Asante says. “Whether it is information, work opportunities, or rapid logistics of essential goods, my goal has been to democratize access.”

NOVA spoke with Asante about this emerging transport technology, the potential impact it could have on communities, and his advice for students about adapting lessons learned in school to complex systems that have the potential to change the lives of billions of people.

Kara Norton (KN): How would you describe the current landscape of the electric vehicle takeoff and landing (eVTOL) field and how is Elroy Air applying it to its aircraft?

Kofi Asante (KA): With electric vertical takeoff and landing, you’re basically using these motors and electric-powered batteries in a way they haven’t ever been used before. This is happening with smaller drones that deliver blood or medical supplies. It’s also happening with flying taxis and flying cars, where now they can actually go from city to city or even within a city in a very quiet way. Then in our space, we’re thinking about the larger aircraft that is specifically focused on cargo. The way that I typically like to break this up is into two categories: There is cargo and there is passenger vertical takeoff and landing. Then just going on the spectrum from smaller to larger, there are the small drones that you may see, moving blood, or packages for e-commerce, or maybe even something fun like a burrito or a pizza. Elroy Air falls in the middle. We have a very similar makeup to what you would actually find in a flying car or taxi, but only we are entirely focused on moving cargo. So that could be medical supplies, food, water, organs, whatever you think about as time-sensitive or urgent. It could also be the packages you are expecting from any sort of e-commerce player.

KN: With at least 200 startups around the globe working on this technology, what gaps are you hoping to fill?

KA: The way that I think about this is that there are over 1 billion people who are disconnected from reliable roadways. That means challenging infrastructure. This could even include water, if you think about island nations. It could be because of the weather conditions and icing. There are places, especially when it gets really, really cold and there’s a lot of ice, that you’re putting a person at risk, a pilot at risk, to be able to fly to certain environments and communities. But if you do not, then that community could be at risk of running out of the goods that they need. There are so many situations where it’s actually very challenging to be able to get supplies from point A to point B as quickly and safely as possible. That’s where we think about the large long-term value add of this type of VTOL cargo autonomous system.

For us, we’re going to be moving 300 to 500 pounds of payload over a 300-mile range, so that’s our sweet spot. There’s always a trade-off with aerospace between weight and range, so if we wanted to go 500 miles, then maybe we move less, and if we wanted to go 50 miles, then maybe we could move more.

KN: With a background in business, political science, and political theory, what drew you to the eVTOL field?

KA: I keep finding myself in situations where I’m the only business person in a sea of engineers, and I know that’s atypical. I’ve got a couple thoughts on that, but it all starts with my parents. My dad is from Ghana, West Africa, is an engineer, and so he had that skill set. My mom, an African American woman, was a professor in communications, and so that helped because they would always say, “It’s really great to know how to build something, but it’s almost more important to be able to communicate it and know the high level of what each audience is going to need.” That was the catalyst for me to feel like I had some sort of place in this field without having a science background.

You don’t have to be an engineer to go into this space. It can be accessible for everyone. But when I was in school, my focus really taught me how to condense complex information into very simple frameworks and arguments that help you make sense of the world. I apply that same methodology to what I do every day. I take in the information I learn, I listen, and then I try to make it simple because it’s easy to make things complex.

KN: Could you tell me more about the different applications for this type of system?

KA: When we look at the market in particular, we look at it as healthcare, express parcels, even remote operations, which have humanitarian and defense applications. Starting with healthcare, this could be vaccines, it could be medical devices, medical supplies, organ delivery, really anything that helps improve the quality of life there. The next one would be express parcels, and transporting packages that you order through e-commerce. The third group ends up being remote operations, and when I think about remote operations, that’s humanitarian organizations like the United Nations or World Food Program who are really servicing things like vitamins and essential goods. Anything that we would consider to be essential, they need to make sure they are able to provide to a lot of communities that are very vulnerable. On the defense side, we could be able to deliver lifesaving medical supplies and food and water to troops in need without necessarily putting a person at risk who would have to go deliver these supplies. This also extends past humanitarian or defense applications. There are organizations like Australia Post and Canada Post who are mandated by the country to be able to service all communities. Independent of how easy or challenging it is and independent of how cost-effective it is, they still need to service those communities, so we want to help them do that effectively.

The space required for Elroy Air’s hybrid-electric Chaparral drone to take off and land is less than the size of a helipad, and one pilot would be responsible for an entire fleet. Image courtesy of Kofi Asante

KN: What are some of the engineering limitations?

KA: When we think about the capabilities of what’s possible, a lot of times, the existing way of going about this could have been to retrofit or change an existing aircraft. If you are going to do that, sometimes you can run into some limitations. Because our system is not purely electric, we have the opportunity to take advantage of a lot of preexisting components in traditional aircraft but then also take advantage of these newer systems, electric motors, and batteries that are coming in and get the best of both worlds, which is why we’re able to cover a wider range. What you’ll likely end up seeing with a lot of the all-electric systems, they have a place in this world and are very important, but they’ll end up being range limited.

So, if you think about it, we’re like a Prius as opposed to a Tesla. What we’ve found is that the electric charging stations that would be required on both sides fundamentally just are not possible in a lot of places in the world. So if you truly, truly want to get to this idea, this vision, of being able to democratize access with rapid logistics to over a billion people, you have to be thinking about what are the ways in which you can do that without having to increase the cost of infrastructure or increase the number of vertiports.

KN: When we think about the implications of this autonomous cargo delivery system, how are you planning to keep it accessible for all people?

KA: I can speak to what we can do to support. The biggest one so far is making sure that we build a safe, reliable, high-quality system that’s robust, but then we do it in mass production so we can bring the cost down and then we enable this level of autonomy for fleet management where you actually have one pilot who can manage a whole fleet, so potentially even one person managing a ton of aircraft. So, you can continue to bring the cost down more and more. That’s something I’m super mindful of and one of the main reasons why I decided to join Elroy Air.

When I ended up essentially choosing to say yes and take this opportunity, a big reason was talking with my dad about the work that could be done in a place like Ghana, where he is from. You recognize that there’s a growing market, there’s a big need, there’s challenging infrastructures, but the cost could end up being a big barrier to even being able to have access. Even if you had the right solution, if it’s not within that ceiling, then that could be a problem. So that’s where I’ve said we’re going to have to be mindful of how we build a safe and reliable product. I’m also a big proponent, especially as we go into new markets, of hiring locally and making sure that we’re able to get the actual insight from the ground up on how we can impact the community because there’s so many things that we would just miss if we try to build it without getting their thoughts.

Kofi Asante standing beside the new Chaparral aircraft

Delivering goods to remote locations can be extremely challenging, yet access to supplies are vital for people that live in these areas. Kofi Asante hopes to service communities around the world with the help of Elroy Air’s uncrewed cargo system. Image courtesy of Kofi Asante

KN: Do you have any advice for students looking to engage more with the eVTOL field?

KA: A big thing that is close to my heart is sharing with kids that are coming out of either middle school or high school is that this is possible and that they are the future of this technology. I want to create space for underrepresented people who want to break into the field. I’m hoping that I can open up the door for more. Whether they want to pursue being an engineer, or go down the marketing, sales, business route, whatever it ends up being, any of those positions are going to be needed, I just want students to know that they can do it, and there is a place for them here.

I’m also on the board right now for our Entrepreneurship Center over at Tufts, and we try to cultivate a lot of this exploration for students. But I also oftentimes will say if there’s something you’re on the fence about doing, it’s a great time to try it in college and just experiment and see what sticks. I would have never known that tech and transportation in particular were going to be my focuses, but by talking to a lot of different people and then being able to experiment by going to different internships and trying those things was always really helpful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To learn more about the kinds of trade-offs that engineers need to make to meet strict design challenges, and how more efficient clean energy technologies are possible, explore NOVA resources that address these topics.

Overcoming the Challenges of Solar-Powered Flight | The Impossible Flight
In these videos from NOVA: The Impossible Flight, learn more about the challenges that engineers overcame to build a solar-powered airplane that flew around the world.

Search for the Super Battery | Designing a Cheaper, Safer, and Cleaner Storage Battery
In this video from NOVA: Search for the Super Battery, examine a new approach to create a cheaper, safer, and environmentally friendly battery to meet society’s energy-storage needs.

Gross Science | Electronics Powered by Fish Scales
Physicists have developed a way to turn fish scales into biodegradable nanogenerators. Learn how fish scales can generate electricity, in this video from NOVA’s Gross Science series.

Search for the Super Battery | Inside a Lithium Metal Cell
In this media gallery from NOVA: Search for the Super Battery, scrutinize the subatomic properties that explain why lithium is so commonly found in batteries that power a range of devices, including cell phones, automobiles, and most recently electric airplanes. Use this resource to unpack the conditions inside a lithium battery that may warrant safety concerns.

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