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China successfully tests unmanned helicopter launched from ship

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The helicopter took off from a ship docked near Qingdao port. Photo: Weibo via South China Morning Post

A Chinese-made unmanned helicopter made a successful test flight after taking off from a ship in the port city of Qingdao, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

The test flight of the AR-500BJ, developed by the helicopter research arm of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China, paves the way for small autonomous helicopters to operate on the high seas, CCTV said on Friday. .

While state media and Avic hailed the flight as a significant step forward, the aviation giant didn’t give details on its technology and a military analyst said these autonomous helicopters have few applications. defense.

“In this demonstration and operation at sea, the AR-500BJ smoothly performed flight elements such as take-off and surface landing, marking a new and important breakthrough in the development of this type of helicopter without pilot,” Avic said in a statement on WeChat. .

The helicopter weighs 500 kg (1,102 lb), according to CCTV. The helicopter was equipped with a Chinese-made heavy-fuel engine and flight control, structural, electrical and fuel combustion systems modified to fit the small parking area of ​​a ship.

The helicopter was also designed to withstand “complex electromagnetic environments” – a military situation where electromagnetic signals interfere with the ability to monitor the battlefield.

But it’s unclear what military duties, if any, he might perform.

“The military use of autonomous helicopters is unclear,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher at the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank in Beijing. “There is no clear military use for them, even on a global scale.”

He said fixed-wing drones have greater range and speed, while being cheaper to operate.

The US Navy has used RQ-8 autonomous helicopters for intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance, but it relies more on smaller fixed-wing drones such as the ScanEagle designed by Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary.

Zhou also warned that the complex structure of the AR-500BJ would make repairs difficult.

Avic’s helicopter arm said it took over the project in 2017 to test the AR-500’s ability to adapt to operation on ships and on the ground, as part of a key national research project. and development.

Friday’s test spelled the end of the helicopter arm’s involvement, he said.

The AR-500BJ project officially started in 2018, and the helicopter made its first flight from a ground base two years later.

China is actively developing drones for civilian and military use, to improve logistics and deployment flexibility.

Chinese-made military drones have also been popular with countries like Algeria and Egypt, as they are less expensive than American and European drones.