Familiar Look: The Pterodactyl, which appears somewhat similar to the US Predator, is displayed at the Zhuhai Airshow. (Wendell Minnick/Staff)
Farnborough International Airshow
TAIPEI — Over the past five years, China has built a formidable unmanned aircraft sector that has reached beyond traditional defense companies and displayed unique capabilities while also replicating advanced Western products, experts say.
China “has gone out of its way to reach beyond conventional aircraft companies to encourage cruise missile makers, universities and model aircraft concerns to actively develop unmanned aircraft,” said Richard Fisher, senior fellow, International Assessment and Strategy Center.
One renowned UAV specialist receiving a lot of attention is Robert Michelson, principal research engineer emeritus at Georgia Tech Research Institute. Michelson is one of the rare experts who has served as an “International Referee” and “Innovation Forum” keynote speaker at China’s 2011 and 2013 UAV Grand Prix.
Michelson said the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and the Chinese Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics organize the UAV Grand Prix. It was in 2011 that the event demonstrated a “stopped-rotor” vehicle by Northwestern Polytechnical University, Xi’an, China.
Earlier efforts to create such a vehicle in the US failed. During the 1980s, both the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA funded the Sikorsky X-Wing project, which involved a rigid helicopter rotor that could be stopped in flight to act as a wing, Michelson said.
After significant expenditure, and never having demonstrated conversion from hover to forward flight and back, the X-wing project was canceled.
The next one to take up the challenge was Boeing Phantom Works and DARPA in 2003 under a joint program.
“Boeing attempted to demonstrate stopped-rotor technology with its canard rotor/wing X-50A Dragonfly UAV,” he said. After several years of testing, both demonstrators had crashed.
However, in 2011, Michelson saw the impossible in China. The Northwestern Polytechnical University stopped-rotor UAV “performed flawlessly, transitioning from hover to high-speed forward flight and back again on several occasions.”
Michelson said “in light of the millions spent by DARPA to develop a workable stopped-rotor design without ever demonstrating conversion, I found the fully functional ... stopped-rotor UAV to be one of the most significant technology demonstrations at the AVIC UAV Grand Prix.”
On Michelson’s second trip to China in 2013, he was further shocked to find a Chinese university had solved the complexities of using high voltage to affect the flow over an airfoil on a UAV wing, something never attempted on a UAV before. Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics dubbed the creation their “PlasMav,” he said.
For the first time in known UAV history, a high-voltage field was used to reduce drag and increase lift.
“Basically, the creation of a high-voltage field at the surface of an airfoil can charge the air passing over it in such a way that it can ‘attach’ the airfoil so that shed vortices can be controlled to affect the lift-to-drag ratio of the airfoil,” Michelson said. “The effect is similar to that of circulation control airfoils, but without the need to inject gas into the flow to entrain the air moving over a wing.”
Beyond impressive technical advancements, China is also building UAVs that look remarkably similar to US platforms, including the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk, Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel and General Atomics Predator, Michelson said.
In 2011, Iran captured the wreckage of a downed Sentinel. Copies of it appeared later on Chinese websites suggesting the mainland was working on duplicating the technology.
“As a rule, any major US unmanned aircraft program is likely sooner or later to have a Chinese analogue or near-analogue,” Fisher said. China’s Chengdu Aircraft appears to be developing an unmanned, hypersonic, scramjet-propelled unmanned aircraft based on the DARPA/NASA X-43 hypersonic vehicle, he said.
Another aircraft of amazing similarity to the US Predator/Reaper family is the Chengdu-built Pterodactyl unmanned combat aerial vehicle. It is is a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft.
Another UAV under development is a secret program, dubbed Soar Dragon, under joint development by Guizhou Aviation Group and Chengdu Aircraft Design. Photographs emerging from Chinese military blog sites show an unusual box-wing/closed-wing configuration allowing for sustained high-altitude flight.
Speculation suggests the Soar Dragon could be mounted with anti-ship cruise missiles and reconnaissance sensors. ■