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Solar-powered high-altitude drone makes maiden flight

By ZHAO LEI | China Daily | Updated: 2022-09-05 09:07
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Preparations are undertaken for the first flight of the Qimingxing 50, or Morning Star 50, solar-powered drone in Yulin, Shaanxi province, on Sept 3, 2022. [Photo by LIU FENG/FOR CHINA DAILY]

The country's leading aircraft maker, Aviation Industry Corp of China, carried out the maiden flight of what it calls China's first large, fully solar-powered drone on Saturday, the State-owned conglomerate said on Sunday.

The Qimingxing 50, or Morning Star 50, took off at 5:50 pm on Saturday from an airport in Yulin in Shaanxi province and remained airborne for 26 minutes before landing, AVIC announced in a news release, adding that all systems functioned well.

Propelled by six solar battery powered electric motors, the unmanned drone is designed to conduct long-duration operations in near space.

Near space is used to refer to the section of the Earth's atmosphere between 20 and 100 kilometers, encompassing portions of the stratosphere, mesosphere and lower thermosphere. It lies above the altitude reached by commercial airliners but below that of satellites.

The drone is able to fly at altitudes of up to 20 km and can remain airborne overnight. The solar panels are fixed to its wings which have a combined length of 50 meters, said Zhu Shengli, head designer of the Qimingxing 50.

Calling the drone a "quasi-satellite", Zhu said it is designed to high standards of operational efficiency and is eco-friendly. Among other functions, it will engage in high-altitude reconnaissance, forest fire monitoring, atmospheric inspections, aerial mapping and communication signal relay.

He added that the solar-powered drone will help to advance research and development in fields such as new energy, composite material and aeronautical engineering and will improve national operational capabilities in near space and over oceans.

Before AVIC, China's two main space contractors-China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp-had developed and built solar-powered drone models capable of operating in near space.

Internationally, a handful of countries, among them the United States and the United Kingdom, have developed solar-powered drones capable of flying as high as 20 km.

The record for the highest altitude reached by a solar-powered drone-29.524 km-was set in August 2001 by the Helios Prototype, which was developed by the California-based US technology company AeroVironment Inc.

Wu Peixin, an aviation industry observer in Beijing, explained that there are no clouds above altitudes of 20 km and that the winds are stable so the drone is able to make full use of its solar cells to generate power. As long as the system works, the drone can remain airborne for as long as required.

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