China plans to unleash smog-killing drones to zap its pollution

Too much smog? Call in the drones!
Too much smog? Call in the drones!
Image: Reuters/Stringer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On March 5, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, announced a “war on pollution“—evidence that the highest levels of government have acknowledged that China’s smog and dirty air have reached a crisis point. And what better way to launch a war on pollution than with a fleet of smog-clearing drones?

Ma Yongsheng, an aviation official attending this year’s National People’s Congress, told the South China Morning Post that trials for unmanned aerial vehicles that can carry 700 kg (1,543 lb) of smog-clearing chemicals will begin later this month at airports and ports. The parafoil planes—drones that come with gliding parachutes—are expected to help clear the air within a five-kilometer radius.

Of course all that pollution has to go somewhere; drone-spraying would not eliminate the toxic pollutants, which would still be present in the environment (as in another implausible scheme to clear air pollution with a mist of frigid liquid nitrogen).

Using autonomous robots to combat pollution isn’t a huge leap for China. Drones have already been tested there for parcel delivery, and earlier this year Hebei province dispatched unmanned aerial vehicles to try to identify sources of pollution in cities.

And shooting chemicals into the clouds to clear the skies is a familiar practice. Beijing’s Weather Modification Bureau has been using fixed-wing drones to spray chemicals that cause pollutants in the air to solidify and fall to the ground for years ahead of major events in the capital. The drones deployed in this new “war on pollution” would be cheaper to maintain, according to Ma.