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Designers of Elroy Air’s Chaparral drone, recognized with IDEA Gold, include Colin Owen, Clint Cope, Terik Weekes, Isaiah Jones, and Sean Belardo. Elroy Air Photo

Elroy Air’s autonomous VTOL cargo aircraft, the Chaparral, has taken top honors in the Industrial Designers Society of America’s 2020 International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA).

The hybrid-electric Chaparral was one of just 20 designs to receive a Gold award from among 1,800 entries submitted. With its win in the Automotive & Transportation category, it joints the ranks of previous Gold winners including the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, ICON A5 amphibious sport aircraft, Toyota Prius, and BMW i3.

As Elroy Air put it in a blog post, winning IDEA Gold is “a big deal.”

“We’re really, really fortunate to have the opportunity to win an award like this,” Elroy Air head of strategy and business development Kofi Asante elaborated to eVTOL.com, noting that the company was up against the likes of Hyundai this year. “The idea that we would be able to compete with groups like that, who have hundreds or thousands of people dedicated to each one of their product lines, is really meaningful to us.”

In its blog post, Elroy Air noted that advances in digital design and validation tools have been part of the reason why a small, high-achieving team can now outpace even large aerospace companies in developing advanced air mobility products. Other enabling technologies include electric powertrains — which have seen accelerated development in the automotive industry — and machine perception and software.

Beyond its autonomous flight capabilities, the Chaparral is “part warehouse robot,” capable of navigating autonomously on the ground to pick up and drop off cargo pods. With the Chaparral — which will carry up to 300 pounds (135 kilograms) over 300 miles (480 kilometers) — Elroy Air hopes to expand the reach of express logistics around the world, including to places that currently lack access to rapid delivery of essential goods. That potential was given due consideration by the IDEA judges, whose criteria included design innovation, benefit to the user, benefit to the client, benefit to society, and appropriate aesthetics.

The Chaparral made its first flight in August 2019 at McMillan Airfield at Camp Roberts, California. With 2020 a generally problematic year for flight testing anyway, Elroy Air has recently been focusing on component testing, virtual simulation, and refinement of the autonomy systems, Asante said.

“Right now, we are slated to kickstart our flight test regime again next year, and then we’ll start to work on beyond-visual-line-of-sight expansion,” he told eVTOL.com, noting that the Chaparral will look a little different when it next takes to the air at a location to be determined.

“This prototype has done a lot for us to be able to understand and validate some of the components that we were originally wondering about, but we will be changing some portions of it as we as we go to our production-ready aircraft,” he said.