China claims to have turbine-powered drone carrying 200kg payload

Sounds smelly – but it's a signpost to what they're hoping to achieve

Comment China has claimed it is developing a gas turbine-powered long-range delivery drone that can carry loads of up to 200kg.

The Xinhua news agency, which in its English-language form is little better than a propaganda website along the lines of Russia Today, claims that Chinese online retailer JD.com has created a drone with a "hybrid gas-electric engine" that can make deliveries within a 200km radius, as published on the People's Daily website, a Chinese state propaganda outlet.

In related news, the South China Morning Post reports that JD.com is offering 100m yuan (£11.74m) in competition prizes for people who figure out ways of introducing widespread drone deliveries in China.

JD.com is a direct competitor of online souk Alibaba, which owns the Morning Post. Both sites sell a large range of consumer goods via ecommerce.

The claim of having a drone capable of carrying a 200kg payload is quite a stretch, as is the reported hybrid gas-electric turbine, 3.4 metres long on its own, that supposedly powers this craft. Although this game-changing drone has reportedly been named the VT1, there is very little out there in English about it. Nonetheless, the Chinese company has been surging ahead of the West with its unsupervised drone delivery technology.

Last month the Financial Times reported that JD.com operates, by its own account, 60 drone routes in remote areas of the Sichuan, Jiangsu and Shaanxi provinces. These are said to operate along pre-programmed flight corridors – and the company is reportedly hoping to develop drones that can lift a metric tonne, which is around the same payload as a medium-sized helicopter.

Naturally, when one talks about China and drones, one thing immediately springs to mind: their military potential. Analysts, strategists and armchair air marshals have ranted for years about how swarms of drones could overcome current air defence systems, seemingly having ignored all of the Royal Navy's PR about how its warships' radars can track improbable numbers of cricket balls doing improbable things, like travelling at Mach 3 (even Freddie Trueman might have struggled to bowl that fast, though doubtless his opponents had differing views on the speed of his deliveries).

A drone that can carry 200kg is a drone that can, in blunt terms, carry a 200kg bomb. While there is no suggestion that JD.com is trying to weaponise its drones, a gas turbine-powered autonomous aircraft with a large payload is doubtless going to be of great interest to China's armed forces. The West's traditional focus on staying ahead of potential enemies through technological superiority is losing momentum, according to an International Institute of Strategic Studies report approvingly quoted by the Morning Post earlier this year. "We previously felt that Western states were the champions of new technology and had a large technological lead either over their state peer competitors or over non-state actors," said John Chipman, director-general and chief executive of the IISS. "Now that technological lead is narrowing."

With the South China Sea remaining volatile, North Korea lobbing ballistic missiles in the general direction of America via Japan, and governments of all hues increasingly reluctant to commit human troops, claimed leaps ahead in drone technology should be taken with a pinch of salt for now – but not too large a pinch. ®

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