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.

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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.

unpiloted flying cargo system parked on runway

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.

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