The Chinese are working fast and furious to catch up with leading nations in drone technology, unveiling a prototype this week they hope will dominate a zone of the atmosphere previously inhabitable for drones.
The zone, beginning roughly 12 miles above sea level, is known as the “dead zone” due to the thin air in which it is hard for drones to generate lift and the freezing temperatures that cause most current drone electronics to fail.
The South China Morning Post reports that the Chinese are overcoming the negative effects of the location by including fewer electronic components in the new prototype. This makes it lighter and is easier to hold up in thin air. The drones are exceptionally small in size and can accelerate from 0-100km in an arm’s length using an electromagnetic pulse.
“It shot out like a bullet,” said Yang Yanchu, one of the project’s leading scientists.
Until now, the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, limited to an altitude of about 19km, has been the highest flying drone in use.
But last month, a research facility in Inner Mongolia successfully tested an experimental drone at an altitude of 25km.
The test involved two experimental unmanned aerial vehicles being sent up on a high pressure balloon before being deployed at different altitudes. The second drone was deployed at an altitude of 9km.
The drones then glided towards their targets more than 100km away, adjusting course and altitude in flight without human intervention. On-board sensors beamed data back to a ground station.
The video below shows drones the Chinese released earlier this year. Note that the new prototype flies higher than the atmospheric heights the drones in this video reach.
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