Autel Robotics' new Kestrel drone
Autel Robotics is showcasing the Kestrel drone, which takes off vertically and then morphs in mid-air into a fixed-wing aeroplaneAutel Robotics

US firm Autel Robotics has showcased a new drone capable of vertical take-off and then, once airborne, transforming into a fixed-wing aeroplane.

The Kestrel drone comes with both VTOL and fixed-wing modes and can fly a total distance of 100km (63 miles) with a top speed of 64 km/hr (40 miles/hr). Its nose and tail sections can separate for transport. It can carry a total payload of 2kg and has a total flight time for 1.2 to 2 hours.

Autel Robotics is targeting its unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at the agriculture industry and comes with multispectral infrared sensors in order to monitor crops. But the firm also thinks that Kestrel can serve a purpose in humanitarian aid relief missions, where responders need to be able to get aid to people living in remote areas or in a disaster area where there isn't a great deal of space for a plane to land or take off.

"The electric efficiency of it is what we're really excited about. Between the benefits of having an aerodynamic fixed wing plus having the vertical take-off and landing benefits of a drone, and an hour to over an hour of battery life, that's something that's pretty unparalleled at this point, I would say," Autel Robotics' director of communications Natalie Cheng told GeekBeat.

Autel Robotics plans to launch the Kestrel UAV in March 2017 and it is likely to retail at between $10,000-$15,000. The firm is also showcasing its new line of X-Star consumer drones, which bear more than a passing resemblance to the drones of the world's largest consumer drone manufacturer DJI.

There is currently a great deal of interest in building aircraft that have the ability to take-off vertically like spaceships in popular culture and then morph into fixed-wing aircraft in midair. In May 2015, Nasa shared news of a successful test flight with Greased Lightning, a 10-engine battery-powered electric plane prototype that can carry up to four passengers.

Prior to that, in March 2014 the US Department of Defense's research arm Darpa awarded contracts to Boeing, Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, Karem Aircraft and Aurora Flight Sciences to design aircraft for a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) experimental programme.

Darpa wants the companies to build aircraft that can achieve a top sustained flight speed of 345 mph (555 km/hr) to 460 mph (740 km/hr), and improve the aircraft's hovering efficiency from 60% to at least 75%. The new VTOL aircraft must also be able to carry at least 4,540-5,440kg, which is about 40% of the aircraft's projected weight.

The designs from the companies were due by the end of 2015 but only one will be selected to be built as a prototype, and Darpa hopes to carry out test flights in 2017 or 2018.