China debuts full solar-powered drone

By ZHAO LEI | | Updated: 2022-09-04 14:28
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A photo shows workers preparing for the first flight of the Qimingxing 50, or Morning Star 50, drone in Yulin, Shaanxi province, on Sept 3, 2022. [Photo by Liu Feng/]

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

The Qimingxing 50, or Morning Star 50, drone took off at 5:50 pm Saturday from an airport in Yulin of Shaanxi province and stayed in air for 26 minutes before landing on the same runway, AVIC said in a news release, adding that all systems on the unmanned plane functioned well.

Propelled by six electric motors powered by solar batteries, the drone is designed to conduct long-time operations in near space, according to the release.

Near space is that part of Earth's atmosphere at altitudes of 20 to 100 kilometers, encompassing portions of the stratosphere, mesosphere and lower thermosphere. It is above the top altitudes of commercial airliners but below orbiting satellites.

The drone is able to fly at altitudes of up to over 20 km and can stay airborne overnight. The solar panels are placed on the wings that have a combined length of 50 meters, said Zhu Shengli, head designer of Qimingxing 50.

Calling the model a "quasi-satellite", Zhu said it features high operational efficiency and eco-friendliness and will be tasked with high-altitude reconnaissance, forestry fire monitoring, atmospheric environmental inspection, aerial mapping, communication signal relay and other operations.

He said the solar-powered drone will also help to advance the research and development in fields such as new energy, composite material and aeronautical engineering. It will improve the country's operational capability in near space and oceans, the designer added.

Before AVIC, the nation's two major space contractors — China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp — have developed and built solar-powered drone models capable of flying in near space.

Internationally, a handful of countries like the United States and United Kingdom have developed solar-powered drones that can fly as high as 20,000 meters.

The world record of the highest altitude reached by a solar-powered drone, 29,524 meters, was made by the US' Helios Prototype, developed by the technology company AeroVironmentInc in California, in August 2001.

Wu Peixin, an aviation industry observer in Beijing, said there are no clouds at an altitude of 20,000m or higher and the airflow there is stable so 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.

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