China’s TP500 completes maiden flight, creates milestone for large-scale unmanned air transport

China’s first large transportation plane to operate without a crew, the indigenously built TP500, completed its maiden flight on June 18th. The pilot flight took place in China’s Hubei Province for 27 minutes, and marked a milestone for China’s large scale unmanned air transport. The TP500 has been developed by the First Aircraft Institute of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) under the Chinese Civil Aviation Regulation (CCAR) requirements.

The drone can carry 500-kilogram load to as far as 500 kilometers, as per the claims by AVIC, which notes that the plane is a general-purpose unmanned transport platform with a large load and a maximum range of 1,800 kilometers.

The tail of TP500 has a folding mechanism to facilitate easy loading of cargo, speeding up the loading process. The engine is placed at the front and features a three blade propeller with a large centrally placed spinner. A wheeled tricycle arrangement manages the ground running. It is made with composite materials, reducing the structural weight while maintaining the desired strength. Its Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) is said to be 1.4 tons.

The Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (UCA), apart from freight movement, will be used for Search & Rescue (SAR), airborne communications relay, and remote sensing mapping. UCAs have been gaining importance lately with the various challenges that plague the global logistics operations currently – ranging from climate change, human resource shortages, and infrastructure congestion to the pandemic related setbacks.

UCAs can be cheaper and more efficient than manned cargo aircraft because of the fewer personnel required, as one controller on the ground can operate several UCA on long flights. In addition, it costs less to build a UCA, and the fuel consumption of a UCA can be reduced by bringing down the cruise speed. Therefore, various cargo drones capable of transporting hundreds of thousands of kilograms of payloads are in-flight tests and are expected to become operational in the coming decade.

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