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Solar-powered drone reaches record height

By Zhao Lei | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2017-06-11 13:55

China's largest and most advanced solar-powered unmanned aircraft has set a domestic record for flight ceiling by reaching an altitude of more than 20,000 meters, according to its designer.

The Caihong, or Rainbow, solar-powered drone, developed by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics, set the record during a test flight recently at an unidentified airport in Northwest China. It flew at an altitude of 20,000 meters long enough for the flight to be classified as a success, Shi Wen, head of unmanned aircraft development at the academy, said in an interview on June 1.

He said the drone took off in the morning and flew back to the airport late at night. It will take several years for designers and engineers to improve and test the aircraft before it is delivered to users.

Solar-powered drone reaches record height

The aircraft is able to fly above a large area and features flexibility and good economy. Future improvements will enable it to remain aloft for several months or even several years. Potential buyers mainly will be government departments and companies involved in communications, the internet, Earth observation, emergency response and marine survey and inspection, according to Shi.

He declined to reveal the size of the drone, but earlier reports said a similar type of aircraft developed by his team was 14 meters long with a 45-meter wingspan.

The designer explained that normally, a liquid fuel-powered military drone can fly to a maximum altitude of up to 8,000 m, while a handful of top surveillance drones like the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk in the United States are capable of reaching altitudes of 18,000m.

In the category of solar-powered drones, Chinese institutes have developed some experimental models, but they are smaller and technologically unsophisticated compared with the Caihong, Shi said.

Wang Yangzhu, president of Beihang University's Unmanned System Institute and a senior drone expert, says Beihang University in Beijing, Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Jiangsu province and Northwestern Polytechnical University in Shaanxi province had made experimental, solar-powered drones to verify technologies, and their types "could hardly fly any higher than 10,000m".

"Therefore, the Caihong has made a remarkable achievement," Wang says.

Shi said the higher a solar-powered drone can fly, the longer it is able to remain in the sky because there are no clouds 20,000m above the ground and the airflow is stable. Thus, the drone can fully use its solar cells to generate power. As long as the solar power system works well, the aircraft can stay in the air as long as the controllers wish.

Previously, the US and United Kingdom developed solar-powered drones capable of flying as high as 20,000 m. The altitude record for a solar-powered drone, 29,524 m, was made by the US Helios Prototype, developed by Aero Vironment Inc in California, in August 2001.

Drones made by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics are used in at least 10 foreign countries, according to the academy.

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