Shenzhen-based express carrier, SF Express, is partnering with Pipistrel Aircraft and its UAV software engineering affiliate Amazilia Aerospace to develop an unmanned vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) cargo drone.
As regulatory frameworks for managing cargo drones begin to mature, integrators are increasingly looking to VTOLs for the middle-mile and last-mile transportation.
Slovenia-based Pipistrel will design the VTOL, while Pipistrel’s German subsidiary Amazilia will provide digital flight controls and the drone’s vehicle management system. The proposed aircraft would have a payload capacity of 300 kilograms and a range of 500 kilometers, according to a press release from Pipistrel. The drone as conceived will be capable of reaching a cruising altitude of up to 6,000 meters and sustaining VTOL capability for up to 2,500 meters above sea level.
While SF Express did not outline an initial order size, it is planning to add extensive UAV operations. “We believe VTOL drones will become a major vehicle in China, and SF Express alone will need more than 1,000 in the next ten years,” said Li Dongqi, SF Express vice president and SF UAS chairman, in the release.
For SF, introducing the drones will enable the integrator to improve service to areas with limited accessibility, such as remote regions and those with geographical barriers.
“The high-altitude capability allows us to extend our civil air cargo service coverage to even difficult to reach mountainous areas,” said Li.
Ultimately, SF Express expects that the addition of drones to its delivery fleet will support the company’s overall mission of providing a 36-hour nationwide express service across China.
“Our efforts to achieve 36-hour countrywide delivery throughout China face significant challenges, such as natural barriers, underdeveloped logistics infrastructure and more, especially in rural China,” said Li. “SF Express intends to adopt cargo VTOL drones to solve this bottleneck due to their flexibility and high speed.”
The drone prototype is scheduled to begin flight testing in Europe, after which the company hopes to achieve operational validation in China in 2022. SF Express intends to deploy the cargo drone fleet by 2023.
This development reflects continued interest in VTOLs within the air cargo industry. Last week, UPS announced the purchase of 10 eVTOLs made by Beta Technologies. The aircraft are scheduled to arrive in 2024, following certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.
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