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Pipistrel will customize its cargo drone for high-altitude ops by SF Express

The Chinese multinational logistics provider SF Express is partnering with Slovenia’s Pipistrel to develop a customized version of Pipistrel’s Nuuva hybrid-electric VTOL cargo drone.

Pipistrel SF Express VTOL cargo drone
SF Express plans to use large VTOL cargo drones to expand its delivery network fleet, including in mountainous areas. Pipistrel Image

The companies announced April 12 that SF Express and its Munich-based subsidiary, Amazilia Aerospace, will collaborate on a VTOL cargo drone with the ability to carry 300 kilograms (660 pounds) occupying 2.3 cubic meters (81 cubic feet) over a range of 500 kilometers (310 miles). The aircraft will be able to cruise at altitudes up to 6,000 m (19,685 feet) and have VTOL capability up to 2,500 m (8,200 ft) above sea level.

Building on years of research at the Technical University of Munich, Amazilia Aerospace will contribute an automatic flight control system and vehicle management system, including avionics hardware and software capable of automating the entire cargo mission. Pipistrel will design and produce an airframe based on its Nuuva architecture, incorporating eight independent, battery-powered Pipistrel E-811 electric motors, which have already been type certified by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.

A Pipistrel spokesperson told that the Nuuva concept is designed to be adaptable to each customer’s needs and requests, with trades possible between range, payload, and altitude. “In the case of SF Express, we optimized the design for high-altitude operation and specifics of their cargo, which is lighter but has bigger volume,” the spokesperson stated.

The aircraft prototype is scheduled to undergo flight testing with Amazilia Aerospace in Europe followed by operational validation in China starting in 2022. By 2023, SF Express intends to deploy the model in its domestic and international business operations.

In a press release, Li Dongqi, SF Express VP and chairman of SF UAS, predicted that SF Express will need more than 1,000 VTOL drones in the next 10 years.

“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,” he stated.

“SF Express intends to adopt cargo VTOL drones to solve this bottleneck due to their flexibility and high speed, which is on 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.”

Pipistrel founder and CEO Ivo Boscarol described the partnership with SF Express as “a solid recognition of Pipistrel’s capability built up on more than a decade of achievements in electric flight.”

He added, “We look forward to becoming even more involved in strategic business solutions on a global scale, where our vehicles will change how aerial logistics work and have further significant impacts to sustainability and quality of life.”

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