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

Designed to operate 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.

In a recent test, Chinese engineers surpassed the U.S. military’s RQ-4 Global Hawk ,which has been the highest-flying drone, operating at altitudes of 60.000 feet. The Chinese experimental drone has been flying at 82.000 feet! 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.

Global militaries have long sought to take advantage of near space as it offers an opportunity to gather intelligence over large-areas without the costs or vulnerabilities of satellites. As advanced militaries increasingly rely on satellites for everything from intelligence to communications to missile guidance, they have become high-priority targets during wartime, and are difficult to defend.

Therefore, having near space vehicles capable of gathering intelligence, relaying data, and serving as a backup or even replacement satellites would be invaluable. But so far no country has been able to operate in near space, as most aircraft cannot fly at such high altitudes and it is too low for satellites.

This year, China test flew a solar-powered drone at 65,000 feet. The massive drone, dubbed the Caihong T-4, has a wingspan of 130 ft and is designed to stay aloft for months at a time with minimal supervision. China’s newest high-flying drone would only cost a few hundred yuan.

With these cheap, stealthy high-altitude drones, China has leapt ahead in the near space race. NASA currently holds the record with its Helios Prototype, which soared to nearly 97,000 feet on solar power, but cost millions of dollars.

National / AA-Magnum News 2017.

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