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Sun, Nov 06, 2022

Chinese Commuter Cargo Drone Takes Flight

Remote Piloted, Quad-Engine Drone Takes to the Skies in Maiden Flight

Sichuan Tengden Sci-Tech Innovation completed its first test flight of the firm's upcoming 4-engine, long-haul UAV in Sichuan China earlier this month. 

The Twin-Tailed Scorpion, a high-wing, multiengine aircraft, will come in 2 different variations to tailor performance to customer demand. The aircraft tested was the larger Twin-Tailed Scorpion D, equipped with what appear to be 4 turboprop engines. Smaller variants will include the 3-engine Twin-Tailed Scorpion A (TB-A), and the 2-engine Twin-Tailed Scorpion. The D-model focuses on transport capability above all, offering a medium-altitude, high endurance cargo carrier with additional redundancy for vital missions. 

The large, accommodating cargo hold offers a pair of hatches for loading directly into the aircraft, but reports from Chinese industry figures hint that the aircraft could ultimately offer much greater flexibility in cargo carriage. The Scorpion D is expected to be able to carry payloads "under the wings like other Twin-Tailed Scorpion series drones", which could be taken to mean a more modular cargo carriage system is in the cards. The D-model should boast a max takeoff weight of 4.35 tons, with 1.5 tons of payload nestled within its 5-cubic meter compartment. 

The concept of commuter-sized, cargo hauling UAVs isn’t new by any means, with American companies like Reliable Robotics making headway on their remotely piloted Cessna Caravan, but a 4-engine aircraft is an eyebrow-raising anachronism in the industry today. With the reliability of modern engines, the price tag attached to the redundancy of even a single additional engine has been put into question for many operators, leading to the popularity of single-engine turboprops for many small operators. Larger aircraft are no different, with most airlines shelving their legacy 747s and moving to ETOPS-capable passenger aircraft in an effort to minimize costs wherever possible. Sichuan Tengden's references to redundancy and reliability likely point to the kinds of missions expected of the UAV: A military-esque cargo aircraft for use when deliveries absolutely, positively have to arrive on station. 

While the specifics of how it's fueled or even powered remain nebulous, it's fairly safe to assume many features of the cargo model are shared with the firm's military TB-001 drone, suspected to already be in operation with the PLAAF. That model more closely resembles the 2-engine Scorpion, with hardpoints under the wings and a center section lifted straight from the usual UAV style book of "vaguely rounded, porpoise-like" design. That aircraft offers a 35-hour endurance, 1,620 nm range, and 26,000 ft ceiling. For now, however, western intelligence on the aircraft is limited to commercial releases ahead of the upcoming Airshow China 2022, where the aircraft will make its public debut. Will it be a market creator for the niche of a hardy, reliable 4-engine cargo haulin' UAV? (Probably not, but it's fun to think "what if?...")



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