China Debuts Its “Monster” Cargo Drone

Another next-generation cargo drone– China’s TB-OD, manufactured by Tengden – is about to make its appearance on the world scene.  The monster drone, dubbed the “Scorpion,” is powered by four propellers and has a wingspan of 65 feet, but its most distinctive feature may be its twin boomed tail, and its enormous payload capacity – a whopping 4.3 tons.  The Scorpion can also fly continuously for 3,700 miles, more than twice the distance of a rival cargo plane – Dromatics’ “Black Swan” – that will debut in European skies later this spring.  The Scorpion completed its maiden flight over Sichuan Province last October, and is scheduled to be available for commercial use sometime later this year.

The Scorpion is not Tengden’s only cargo drone prototype – there are at least two others.  One is a scaled down version of the Scorpion – this time, just two propellers, with a smaller payload capacity.  Experts say the appearance of the Scorpion, the Black Swan and a third aircraft, the Chaparral –manufactured by San Francisco-based El Roy Air – signal a potential shift in the UAV market away from small “last mile” package delivery drones toward larger “middle mile” cargo aircraft capable of business-to-business deliveries as well as humanitarian relief, firefighting and even human rescue and passenger transport operations.

It’s unclear which of these two drone delivery markets is likely to “scale up” faster.  Smaller battery-powered delivery drones, like those already being piloted by U.S. retailers like Amazon and Walmart, have gotten a head start, with Part 135 regulatory approval from the Federal Aviation Administration which will allow the companies to commence Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights once their current pilots prove effective – assuming that they do.

But the larger gas-powered cargo planes potentially have major logistical advantages, including their capacity to fly at higher altitudes at reduced noise levels as well as their ability to fly continuously over much longer distances.  Tengden says its remotely-piloted Scorpion drones are controlled and tracked in real-time through a remote command and control center which also maintains constant visual connection with the vehicle, reducing the potential for a crash or collision.

Some observers are skeptical of Tengden’s insistence that the Scorpion is for commercial use only – an issue that arises with almost every new drone produced in China. In the past, Beijing has made no secret of its desire to adapt all new commercial drones produced in the country to military combat roles.  In fact, the smaller  TB-001 has already seen action in regional defense and security scenarios, including aerial reconnaissance missions near Taiwan, which China still considers part of its own national territory.

The case against Beijing – part of a growing anti-China chorus in the West may well be overstated, or at least premature.  In an article published in Popular Science in 2018, Tengden announced that it had partnered with the Chinese delivery company SF Express to produce a larger upgraded version of the TB-001 for commercial delivery purposes only.  The article further noted that this modified version of TB-001 – probably an early prototype of the Scorpion – had already dropped supplies to a Huawei repair crew in Yunnan Province as part of a “proof-of-concept” test of its cargo delivery capabilities.  None of those supplies were for military use and there’s been no evidence of military deployment – even for test purposes – ever since.

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