China Is Deploying Smog-Busting Drones So Its Airports Can Stay Open

With smog in Beijing so bad it's forced pilots to land blind and officials to shut down the airport, China has unveiled a new plan to test drones that spray smog-clearing chemicals around airports. 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 1,500 pounds of smog-clearing chemicals to clear a 3 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 heck of 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 earth. 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 sometimes you just have to do what you can. [South China Morning Post]

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