The Next Space Race: Is America Ready For Chinese Space Drones?

Eugene K. Chow

Key point: China is making impressive strides in a domain once dominated by America.

In a major breakthrough, China has unveiled a formidable new high-altitude drone that could give its military a significant advantage.

Designed to operate in “near space,” 12.5 miles above sea level or higher, China’s new drones can break through air defenses, avoid radar detection, and collect valuable intelligence while staying well beyond the range of anti-aircraft fire.

Operating at these heights has been a challenge that has long eluded engineers. Dubbed a drone “death zone” as the air at this elevation makes it difficult to generate lift and extremely low temperatures cause electrical equipment like batteries to fail.

Until now, the U.S. military’s RQ-4 Global Hawk has been the highest-flying drone, operating at altitudes of 60,000 feet. But in a recent test, Chinese engineers surpassed that, flying an experimental drone at 82,000 feet.

At a research facility in Inner Mongolia, two drones were attached to a weather balloon and deployed at 30,000 feet and 82,000 feet. Roughly the size of a bat and weighing about as much as a soccer ball, the drones were launched by an electromagnetic pulse sling shot that catapulted them out at 60 mph.

The drones coasted to targets over sixty miles away, automatically adjusting their flight path and sending data back to a ground station. Most notably, due to their small size, they were barely detectable on radar during their test flight.

The drones were equipped with several sensors, including a terrain mapping device and an electromagnetic signal detector that would allow it to pinpoint military troops. However, the drones could not carry cameras, as that would require a bulky antenna to transmit photo or video data, which would throw off its delicate aerodynamics.

Its wings and body are seamlessly blended into a flat, tailless design that generates lift in the thin atmosphere of near space. Some models, like the two recently tested, do not have engines, instead drifting to their targets like a glider.

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