The Slovenian light aircraft producer Pipistrel has managed to speed up its already rapid development, signing a deal worth half a billion euros with its Chinese partners, entering into a partnership with Uber to create electric “flying taxis”, and launching a research program to further develop hybrid powered planes.
At the Uber Elevate Summit held in Dallas this April, the US tech giant announced its plans to offer on-demand urban air transportation in near future for both people and the delivery of goods, with the service based on environmentally friendly Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) vehicles. Uber’s key development partner for this huge leap in city transportation is not Boeing nor any of the other aeronautic giants: it is Pipistrel, a small, entrepreneurial company from Ajdovščina in Slovenia. At the summit Uber signed a partnership deal with the Slovenian firm to develop electric VTOL aircraft until the year 2020, while Uber will provide the IT used to operate the planes.
“Pipistrel is the only company in the world that builds and sells electric aircraft today. With a brand-new factory to increase their capacity, they are a valued partner in making Uber’s VTOL network a reality,” explained Mark Moore, Uber's Director of Engineering for Aviation. Pipistrel currently produces two fully electric planes, the Taurus Electro and Alpha Electro, with both being two-seaters. The company is one of the pioneers of electric propulsion, with track record going back over 15 years. This highly innovative enterprise also developed the world’s first four-seat hybrid propulsion aircraft, and in 2016 also produced a four-seat plane powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The new planes for Uber will be manufactured in Pipistrel's new factory in Italian Gorizia, just across Slovenian border.
Moreover, this is not the only major development that Pipistrel is engaged in. The company also leads a new research project called MAHEPA, or Modular Approach to Hybrid-Electric Propulsion Architecture, which is aimed at tackling the current limitations of electrically-powered aircraft by introducing new serial hybrid-electric powertrains. The main result of the MAHEPA project will be novel, modular, and scalable hybrid-electric powertrains capable of running on alternative fuels or on hydrogen with zero emissions. The members of the project, led by Pipistrel, are Compact Dynamics, DLR, the University of Ulm, H2Fly, Politecnico di Milano, TU Delft and the University of Maribor. MAHEPA will be publicly presented for the first time at the Paris Air Show in late June.
“Hybrid-electric propulsion will change the way we travel,” stresses Pipistrel's founder, Ivo Boscarol, outlining his plans for the company’s next major project: a zero-emission 19-seat aircraft powered by hybrid electric technology and hydrogen low temperature PEM fuel cells. This represents not only a huge step for the Slovenian company but also “a historic milestone” in flight. The development of the new aircraft will be at least partially financed with funds gained from the deal with China’s Sino GA company, announced last fall. This cooperation deal includes the transfer of technology to produce Alpha Electro and Panthera Hybrid airplanes in China, and Sino GA also bought the exclusive rights to sell these two models in China and selected countries in East Asia. The total value of this cooperation project is over 500 million euros. This is obviously a huge step forward in Pipistrel’s move into the Asian market, although it is not the first deal the Ajdovščina-based company has made in this region. In late 2015, the Indian government ordered from 194 light aircraft from Pipistrel for its armed forces to use in training.