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Chinese researchers have successfully developed a turbofan drone engine that is cheaper and more fuel-efficient, which could enable it to effectively get ahead of opponents attempting to match China in drone numbers.
The new engines are now reportedly being used by the People’s Liberation Army to produce large numbers of low-cost, high-speed, long-endurance drones, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
The low-cost nature of these engines is their true strategic benefit- if China begins producing considerably cheaper UAV units, the escalating costs of building any other drones would quickly become unreasonably high.
According to Interesting Engineering, the fact that China managed this achievement is interesting in of itself, considering the country is a relative newcomer to the jet engine technology sector with its J20 stealth fighter only recently receiving a pair of domestically produced engines. The new engine’s “secret sauce” is its design simplicity compared to other turbofans. “We built the world’s first compact turbofan engine with a single shaft,” said Zhu Junqiang, a Chinese engineering thermal physicist.
Most of the turbofan engines currently in use have multiple shafts for power transmission because the smaller fans located in the front of the engine (which compress the air) need to rotate at a higher speed than the bigger fans located at the rear (which generate the thrust). Unlike other engines, which have a straight way from front to end, China’s single-shaft turbofan engine enables the air-compressing and thrust-generating fans to spin simultaneously.
Furthermore, the new Chinese turbofan consumes nearly a third less fuel than two-shaft engines, and its maintenance costs are significantly lower because it has 70 percent fewer mechanical components. All in all, these new engines cost 80% less than conventional ones.
SCMP reports that Junqiang and his team are currently constructing a huge facility, the size of 24 football fields, the primary purpose of which is to aid the development of next-gen drones. The researchers are planning to use an X-ray machine to study the hidden structural alterations of the engine and drone during ground tests, hoping to gain insights, enhance the performance, and minimize the cost.