China testing huge drones as unmanned cargo planes

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The unmanned AT200 cargo plane or drone had its maiden flight last month. Photo: Xinhua

China has been leading the charge in drone technologies as well as military application, with a slew of paramilitary or military stealth drones grabbing media attention at the recent Dubai Airshow.

On a small airstrip in Shaanxi province in the center of the country, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has been quietly testing a colossal drone that resembles a full-scale business jet – except it has no cockpit.

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The AT200 big drone developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Photo: Xinhua

The drone, known by the development code AT200, is not designed to transport people but to courier large quantity of goods and shuttle them between airports and warehouses.

Xinhua reports that the AT200 can lift 1.5 tons of goods in its 10-cubic meter cabin to almost 6,100 meters high and cruise at a top speed of 313 kilometers an hour for eight hours.

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Inside the AT-200’s cargo cabin. Photo: Xinhua.

Its minimum takeoff length is just 200 meters, meaning it has great maneuverability, as it can take off and land on a highway or long strip of land, according to a CAS expert.

The AT200 had its maiden flight at the end of last month and is now awaiting assessment on its airworthiness. It can be operated on a portable console like a gamepad, and an entire flight can allegedly be steered with “just one button”, from takeoff to landing.

One such console can simultaneously control multiple AT200 cargo drones.

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The New Zealand-made PAC 750XL utility aircraft. Photo: Alan Lebeda/Wikimedia.

The CAS expert said the AT200 design emulated that of the New Zealand-made PAC P-750 XSTOL, a utility aircraft with a conventional low-wing monoplane design used primarily for short-haul cargo flights, with a large fuselage and a fixed tricycle undercarriage.

The P-750 uses a 750 hp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprop, but Xinhua didn’t reveal if the AT200 has the same engine or a domestically made one.

Several delivery firms have been using small drones to deliver parcels and the AT200 may be used to transport goods from major airports and warehouses to lower-tier cities, towns or sites with a less developed logistics infrastructure, to ensure swift delivery when more Chinese shop on the internet.

Read more:

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