Aviation Industry Corp of China, a State-owned defense conglomerate, is developing a large manned airship and plans to conduct its maiden test flight in 2020, according to its designers.
"The aircraft will be tasked with carrying out aerial sightseeing or freight transportation, and will also be suitable for mineral surveys, marine surveillance, emergency response and counterterrorism operations," said Zhang Mingwen, head of the Special Aerial Vehicle Research Institute, an AVIC subsidiary in Jingmen, Hubei province, that is designing the blimp.
Propelled by two engines, the airship will be capable of carrying 840 kilograms and will be able to stay airborne for 24 hours, Zhang said.
He added that it will have a flight range of 1,000 kilometers and will be able to fly at an altitude of more than 3 km. The blimp will come in two types, one piloted and one remotely controlled, he said. Details on the blimp's size were not disclosed.
The institute head said the airship program was approved in June by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and construction formally began in late August. It is expected to obtain certification from the civil aviation authority in 2021, he added, noting the institute anticipates more than 100 orders before 2030.
Zhang's institute has designed a number of manned and unmanned airships since the mid-1980s. It hopes that the new model's development will help Chinese engineers narrow the technological gap between Chinese airships and foreign ones, and also help to boost the country's aerospace industry, said Zhou Lei, the airship's program manager.
In addition to AVIC, another State-owned defense contractor, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, is also investing in dirigibles.
Qian Taiyang, a senior designer at Beijing Near-Space Airship Technology Development Co－a subsidiary of CASIC－said his company has designed and built several types of airships, including at least one manned model.
"The manned blimp has made several test flights and is awaiting civil aviation authority certification," he said.
With a capacity of one controller and eight passengers, the airship can fly for 5 hours and reach an altitude of 1,000 meters above ground. Driven by two turboprop engines, it can move 70 to 80 kilometers per hour in good weather, Qian said.
Wang Ya'nan, editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, explained that compared with conventional aircraft like fixed-wing planes or helicopters, airships have much lower costs in terms of procurement, operation and maintenance.
They can be used almost everywhere, as opposed to fixed-wing planes that require runways. Therefore, airships are a good choice for aerial tourism and cargo transportation to remote, rugged areas, he said.