China’s heaviest cargo drone with a maximum take-off weight of 3.4 tonnes and 1.5 tonne payload took its first test flight this weekend at Neifu Airport in Pucheng. The AT-200 is one of the most powerful drones ever to be used in a commerical application. The Institute of Engineering Thermophysics says it was in the air for 26 minutes and completes automatic take-off and landing within 200 meters. The aircraft is being developed on a P750XL utility aircraft platform. It will reach speeds up to 313 km per hour and have a flight range of 2,183 kilometers and 6,098-meter service ceiling.
JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce retailer, is developing the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle or drone) along with a consortium of research institutes and companies. According to Recode, the AT-200 could be operating in China within the next several years.
To put its sheer size in persective, until recently drones were only considered for carrying small shipments, i.e., a product delivery placed online to a customer’s home. But at some point in the not too distant future, the AT-2000 drone could be delivering literally a ton of cargo to Chinese cities from rural areas.
The way China uses drones is markedly different from how they are used in the U.S. These new drones are going to be essentially miniature groupage operators, according to JD.com CEO Richard Liu. He explains, “instead of the drone delivering directly to customers’ doorsteps, a local delivery person retrieves the cargo from the drone, which may carry between eight and 15 packages that were ordered by people in the village. The delivery person then brings the packages to people’s doors.”
In contrast, in the U.S., Amazon is studing how drones can be used for home deliveries which are usually small amounts of merchandise delivered from a local warehouse. Drones are also used domestically for photography, reconnaisance and some agricultural and construction applications such as roof and solar panel inspections.
In China however, JD.com reportedly has plans in the works to open a 30-acre testing and R&D center with the Xi’an National Civil Aerospace Industrial Base. The company is already flying five different types of drones. Various sizes are used for delivery, depending on the size and weight of the cargo. JD.com spokespersons note that using drones for deliveries is about 70 percent cheaper than using trucks.
Clearly the U.S. is not embracing drone technology as quickly as the Chinese. Regulatory agencies like the FAA are still formulating the rules for a nationwide low-altitude air traffic control system that is not expected to come to fruition until at least 2020. After that, it remains to be seen if drones of gargantuan propotions capable of carrying a ton of freight like AT-2000 will ever be introduced in America.
Even so, Friday morning quarterbacks are closely watching China’s UAV program, wondering if safety and efficacy parameters will pan out. If the country’s pilot program is successful, the AT-200 and other extra-large size drones could prove to be a game changer for aerial deliveries in the years and decades to come.