Chinese logistics group SF Express is to use a new high-capacity cargo-carrying unmanned aerial vehicle that is being developed by its German subsidiary, Amazilia Aerospace, in partnership with Slovenian electric aircraft specialist Pipistrel. The partners expect to have a prototype ready to start flight testing in 2022, with SF Express aiming to begin operations in 2023.
The unnamed aircraft announced today is based on the Nuuva V300 model that Pipistrel has been developing since 2020. It is being designed to lift more than 300 kg (661 pounds) of cargo in an 81-cubic-foot storage space, with a range of around 500 km (311 miles).
The hybrid-electric model will be powered by eight of Pipistrel’s E-811 electric motor and rotor units, which have already been certified by EASA, as well as a turbine engine. It will have additional battery packs to provide backup if up to two of the rotor sets fail.
Pipistrel is responsible for designing the aircraft and producing the prototype, while Munich-based Amazilia will provide its flight control and vehicle management systems. Honeywell is providing the flight control system for the original Nuuva V300 design, which Pipistrel has always intended as a concept that can be adapted to meet the specific needs of different customers.
SF Express wanted its aircraft optimized for high-altitude operations, as well as having larger cargo storage space, but a lower overall payload. The drone will operate in vertical takeoff and landing mode from altitudes of up to 2,500 meters (8,202 feet) and cruise at up to 6,000 meters (19,685 feet).
“Our efforts to achieve 36-hour countrywide delivery throughout China face significant challenges, such as natural barriers and underdeveloped logistics infrastructure, especially in rural China,” said SF Express vice president Li Dongqi. “SF Express intends to adopt cargo VTOL drones to solve this bottleneck due to their flexibility and high speed, which is on a par with helicopters and has low costs which are competitive with truck delivery. The high-altitude capability allows us to extend our civil air cargo service coverage to even difficult-to-reach mountainous areas.”
According to SF Express, it expects to need more than 1,000 aircraft over the next 10 years. The group intends to operate these both within China and in other markets it serves.
Logistics operations are one of the proposed applications for the EH216 Autonomous Aerial Vehicle being developed by China's EHang. However, the all-electric multicopter has a payload of only around 485 pounds and a range of just 22 miles.