By Elizabeth Shim
China’s military engineers have conducted tests of a “paragliding drone” in Tibet, and the new technology is expected to be deployed as cargo transport during military operations and disaster relief missions.
The drone uses a powered parachute for liftoff, instead of wings or rotors. Scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenyang Institute of Automation conducted the tests, the South China Morning Post reported Tuesday. The institute is presided over by China North Industries Group Corp., the country’s largest arms producer.
China is a top manufacturer of civilian drones, and DJI, a startup based in the southern city of Shenzhen, controls 70 percent of the world market.
Drones equipped with parachutes are not new. They have previously been used to get medical supplies and other items to geographically isolated areas and war zones, where helicopters cannot fly without serious risk to the pilot.
According to a statement from the institute, the field tests showed unmanned parachutes could be dispatched to harsh environments, including areas of high altitude with an insufficient supply of oxygen. They are able to “solve the difficult challenge of large-area surveillance and long-distance delivery” in areas of earthquakes and military operations, the statement read.
China’s military officials gave the drones “high praise,” and said they looked forward to the deployment of the drones in the near future, the institute stated.
Tests included flights at low altitudes, the use of sensors and artificial intelligence, each which helped improve the drones’ performance. The fleet could operate either automatically or by remote control, the report read.
The tactical drones are being introduced as tensions escalate in the South China Sea after Beijing unilaterally marked off disputed islands as its sovereign territory. In May, the Pentagon had stated that China is expected to manufacture 42,000 unmanned vehicles for land and sea. In the case of the Spratly Islands, an unmanned fleet of drones could play a key role in delivering cargo.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China is building the current international order and is protecting the peace and “international justice” of the Asia-Pacific region and the world.
Hong’s remarks come after U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently said the United States is shifting its focus toward the Asia-Pacific in order to “deter aggression.”