China is Deploying Smog-Busting Drones So That its Airports Can Stay Open

By Sarah Zhang on at

With smog in Beijing so bad it's forced pilots to land blind and officials to shut the airport, China has unveiled a new plan to test drones that spray smog-clearing chemicals around fly-zones . How will it work?

Trials for these new parafoil drones—essentially a drones with parachutes—will begin later this month at airports around China, according to the South China Morning Post. A drone like this can carry some 680 kg of smog-clearing chemicals to clear a three-mile radius around the airports. And it's easy enough to control and land, which is important given all the air traffic.

Parafoil soft-wing drones have some considerable advantages over planes or fixed-wing drones. For one, they're  a lot cheaper, with operating costs at just 1/10 of those for fixed-wing drones. They can also carry three times as much weight, which means more smog-busting chemicals per drone.

The new drone plan doesn't specify what chemicals will be used, but in the past, China has sprayed silver iodide to seed clouds during drought, and they've proposed the same for smog. In theory, falling rain or snow would bring the pollution down to the ground. There's another, more nascent proposal to freeze pollutants solid in the air with liquid nitrogen.

The obvious problem with both, however, is that the toxic pollutants in the air simply end up on the ground, where they are still toxic pollutants. China does seem to be getting serious about combatting pollution, but these smog-clearing strategies fight the symptom rather than the root cause of pollution. But when that's all you can really for now, you can't not do it. [South China Morning Post]

Top image: Smog in Beijing in February 2014. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan