China Hypersonic Drone Program Confirmed by Military Researchers

China's military scientists appeared to confirm the existence of a hypersonic drone program this month after publishing research on the challenges of landing an unmanned aircraft travelling at Mach 5.

Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday that researchers with China's People's Liberation Army Air Force were working on refining the technology behind a classified model of hypersonic drone, although it was unclear whether such a vehicle was already in service.

The paper published on September 1 appeared in the bi-monthly Chinese journal Tactical Missile Technology.

Dai Fei, of Beihang University in Beijing, conducted the study with four others and the College of Automation Engineering at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Their research looked at an "unpowered return guidance scheme" for unmanned aerial vehicles traveling at five times the speed of sound. At that speed, and from an altitude of 19 miles, the engine of the hypersonic UAV would need to be shut down 125 miles from the intended landing runway, The Post said.

According to the abstract by Dai et al., the drone would enter an "automatic landing interface," which the paper said would rely solely on software prediction to determine the timing and angle of approach, based on variables such as air pressure and altitude.

Neither humans nor the fastest of computers would be able to intervene and provide course corrections at Mach 5, the newspaper said in its latest report into under-development, next-generation PLA technology. The solution, the researchers said, was to improve the software "to better predict possible landing scenarios."

To slow down the UAV, the military scientists would have it perform subtle S turns, but only within the stress limits allowed by the aircraft's wings or body, the study said. As hypersonic aircraft engines cannot be restarted, this "absence of controlled power adds complexity to the landing," according to The Post.

Tuesday's report quotes Chinese engineering professor Wang Xing as saying the PLA could use hypersonic drones against U.S. Air Force F-35s or F-22s, which could be caught "in seconds" after launching an attack.

In July, the newspaper reported designs for a future hypersonic jet that, by 2035, could ferry 10 passengers to anywhere on Earth within an hour. By the mid-2040s, the aircraft could be delivering 10,000 tons of cargo and 10,000 people to space—or moon—stations every year.

In another report the same month, The Post revealed that PLA researchers were developing a hypersonic vehicle–mounted laser that could manipulate the shock wave at the nose of a moving aircraft or missile to allow for faster and safer travel.

China Military Researchers Working On Hypersonic Drone
File photo: A military vehicle carrying a WZ-8 supersonic reconnaissance drone takes part a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images