New Rainbow drones to debut at China airshow

Updated 2016-10-26 14:12:15 China.org.cn
A prototype of CH-5 carrying AR-1 air-to-surface missiles, is on display at the CAAA exhibition center on Oct. 25, 2016.

A prototype of CH-5 carrying AR-1 air-to-surface missiles, is on display at the CAAA exhibition center on Oct. 25, 2016.

A close look at the AR-1 air-to-surface missile, which is equipped on the Rainbow series UAV.

A close look at the AR-1 air-to-surface missile, which is equipped on the Rainbow series UAV.

Two new types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), CH-5 and the Solar-Powered UAV, are set to be launched at the upcoming 11th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition (Airshow China) 2016 to be held in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province on Nov. 1-6, confirmed their developer, China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA) at a briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.

CH-5 is the latest UAV of the Rainbow series. While designed as a hunter-killer UAV, it is also compatible for civilian use such as geological surveying and mapping, depending on the task module it carries. It can stay airborne for 40-50 hours at a time and has a range of 10,000-20,000 kilometers carrying normal payloads. Its long endurance makes it ideal for reconnaissance and surveillance tasks, alongside its ability to launch "surgical strikes" whenever necessary.

Military fans have pointed out that the CH-5 resembles the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper (formerly named Predator-B), and suspect "plagiarism" in its design. However, Rainbow series' chief designer Shi Wen has refuted this allegation on several occasions claiming that designers tend to arrive at the classic aerodynamic shape for an aircraft sooner or later.

Like CH-4, CH-5 uses a hot-bulb engine, an increasingly obsolete piston engine. By contrast, the Reaper has a turboprop engine. Shi explained the engineering behind the choice is that a piston engine has higher fuel efficiency, and will enable longer flight endurance.

"It's not that we can't install a turboprop engine on CH-5. But with a hot-bulb engine, our CH-5 has an endurance twice as long as the Reaper, and ultra-long endurance is a UAV's largest advantage," said Shi.

He added that the higher ceiling enabled by turboprop engines is not what a UAV really needs. "A UAV doesn't need to fly that high. An altitude of 3,000-5,000 meters is quite alright. Instead, we want to focus on how long it can stay airborne and hover above mission zones," Shi said.

CH-5's debut at the airshow is expected to create the same sensation enjoyed by its predecessors CH-3 and CH-4. Both are popular for their endurance and lower price on the international arms market and are a strong competition for drones made by the United States and Europe.

Online video footage shows that CH-3 and CH-4 have been extensively used in combating ISIS in the Middle East and Boko Haram in Africa. Some keen watchers even identified Chinese people among the ground crews of a UAV mission in Iraq, and questioned the role that the Chinese are playing in those missions.

To clarify, Shi said that CAAA is the exporter of Rainbow drones, and its technicians were only in those countries to provide necessary technical support to ensure system integrity, and would never participate in any overseas warfare.

Apart from CH-5, the CAAA also plans to launch the Solar-Powered UAV at the airshow. The next-generation drone can stay airborne for more than 24 hours. In the future it is expected that improved models will have an ultra-long endurance of several months or years.

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