A high-altitude solar-powered drone makes its first flight

Preparations are underway for the first flight of the solar-powered drone Qimingxing 50, or Morning Star 50, in Yulin, Shaanxi province, on September 3, 2022. [Photo by LIU FENG/FOR CHINA DAILY]

The country’s leading aircraft manufacturer, Aviation Industry Corp of China, conducted the maiden flight of what it calls China’s first fully solar-powered large drone on Saturday, the public conglomerate said on Sunday.

The Qimingxing 50, or Morning Star 50, took off at 5:50 p.m. Saturday from an airport in Yulin in Shaanxi province and remained airborne for 26 minutes before landing, AVIC said in a press release, adding that all the systems were working well.

Powered by six electric motors powered by solar batteries, 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 parts of the stratosphere, mesosphere and lower thermosphere. It is above the altitude reached by commercial aircraft but below that of satellites.

The drone is capable of flying at altitudes of up to 20 km and can stay in the air overnight. The solar panels are attached to its wings which have a combined length of 50 meters, said Zhu Shengli, chief designer of the Qimingxing 50.

Calling the drone a “quasi-satellite”, Zhu said it is designed to high standards of operational efficiency and is environmentally friendly. Among other duties, it will handle high-altitude reconnaissance, forest fire monitoring, atmospheric inspections, aerial mapping, and relaying communications signals.

He added that the solar-powered drone will help advance research and development in areas such as new energies, composite materials and aeronautical engineering and improve national operational capabilities in near space and above. oceans.

Prior to AVIC, China’s two major space contractors – China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp – had developed and built models of solar-powered drones capable of operating in near space.

Internationally, a handful of countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have developed solar-powered drones capable of flying up to 20 km.

The record for the highest altitude reached by a solar drone – 29.524 km – was set in August 2001 by the Helios prototype, developed by the American technology company AeroVironment Inc. based in California.

Wu Peixin, an aviation industry observer in Beijing, explained that there are no clouds above an altitude of 20 km and the winds are stable, so the drone can make full use of its solar cells to generate power. As long as the system is working, the drone can stay in the air for as long as needed.

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