UPS Plans Test Of Beta eVTOL’s Delivery Potential

Once transition flight is demonstrated, Beta plans to fly its Alia eVTOL direct to a UPS package center.

Credit: Beta Technologies

UPS Flight Forward, the package carrier’s uncrewed aircraft division, is looking ahead to a vertical takeoff and landing demonstration flight direct to a UPS center using Beta Technologies’ Alia-250.

The demonstration will be a key step in UPS Flight Forward’s plans to introduce the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) Alia as a regional cargo feeder aircraft, initially optionally piloted.

UPS Flight Forward has placed a firm order for 10 Alias, with an option to buy up to 150 aircraft. One of Beta’s two engineering prototypes visited UPS’ Louisville, Kentucky, hub in June, but that aircraft is configured for conventional takeoff and landing testing only.

The Alia is a lift-plus-cruise eVTOL with four lift rotors and a pusher propeller The second prototype is undergoing VTOL flight testing at Beta’s headquarters in Burlington, Vermont. The next step is to test transition between rotor-borne vertical and wing-borne horizontal flight.

Once the Alia has demonstrated transition, the plan is to conduct an eVTOL flight direct to a UPS center, Fred Lopez, UPS Flight Forward president, told an Association of Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International conference in late September.

The Alia is a key part of UPS Flight Forward’s plans to deploy a fleet of aircraft starting with small uncrewed aircraft with payloads of less than 10 lb. and ranges of 10-100 mi. and expanding to including large aircraft with payloads of 1,000-7,500 lb. and a range of 150 mi. 

UPS Flight Forward was awarded its FAA Part 135 certificate to operate as a drone airline in October 2019. The certification enables the company to fly payloads up to 7,500 lb. either with an operator or autonomously. 

The UPS subsidiary is routinely operating small drones for medical deliveries. The company is “staying engaged” with developers of medium-size uncrewed aircraft with 50-1,000-lb. payload and 30-250 mi. range, but this is not a priority because the regulatory environment is more difficult, Lopez said.

Operation of large aircraft such as a 1,400-lb.-payload, 250-nm-range Alia can begin piloted, he said, and evolve over time to autonomous capability. UPS is also working with Xwing to bring autonomous flight capability to its Cessna Caravan regional cargo feeder fleet, he added.

“We are still in the mode of working with regulators to get aircraft certified,” Lopez said. “We continue to look for partners in the small, medium and large aircraft. We have evaluated 550-560 potential partners. And we continue preparing to bring Beta on board for a point-to-point network.”

UPS is also developing the infrastructure required to operate these new aircraft. “To me, this is the meat and potatoes,” he said. “These different aircraft, like our large [freighter] aircraft, will change over the years, but to do what we want to do, and scale, we need the infrastructure to support that.

“That ranges from information security to the capabilities that are needed to operate these aircraft remotely, so we have to have that intelligence built into the infrastructure to ensure we can go to scale,” he said. “To me, it’s the most important part.”

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.