SF’s large-scale cargo drone moves closer to commercialization after successful flight

SF Express’ Feihong 98 at the company’s Baotou test facility.

Shenzhen-based SF Express announced this week that its Feihong-98 unmanned large cargo drone completed a successful test flight at the company’s Baotou test facility in Inner Mongolia.  SF is preparing to launch small-scale commercialization of the drone within 3-5 years, according to local media sources.

Developed in partnership with the China Academy of Aerospace Electronics Technology Aerospace Technologies, the Feihong-98, based on the Yun-B transporter, has a maximum takeoff weight of 5.25 tonnes, a maximum cargo payload load of 1.5 tonnes, and cruises at speeds of up to 180 kilometers per hour, with a maximum range of 1,200 kilometers. The drone requires 150 meters for takeoff and landing, which makes the equipment potentially viable for operations in difficult terrain undeveloped regions.

Over the past few years, global integrators and carriers have been exploring new ways to leverage drone technology to supplement logistics delivery networks – primarily for use in last-mile delivery of small parcels. A number of Chinese companies are developing drones of varying sizes. In addition to SF, Chinese retailers such as JD.com, Suning, Tongda and Alibaba Cainiao are all exploring UAV technology.

Strong support for UAV development in China could give drone manufacturers in the country an edge over the competition as regulatory obstacles in other countries will likely stunt UAV development elsewhere. Dapeng Li, Principal Scientist at JD-X, notes that despite regulatory obstacles, government authorities have thus far been “supportive of drones and logistics innovation”. China’s Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC) said it could finish airworthiness certification of the Feihong-98 by 2019.

Ultimately, SF seeks to use the Feihong-98 to fill gaps in logistics chains to China’s lesser-developed 5th tier cities and western regions. It is uncertain whether airports or warehouse centers will be on the receiving end of UAV deliveries.

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