Chinese engineers announced a successful maiden test flight of a massive solar-powered drone in the country’s northwest, according to state media outlet, CGNT.
Called Qimingxing-50 or ‘Morning Star’ 50, researchers are confident the unmanned craft could make meaningful contributions to the country’s security, communications and ecological sectors.
Taking off from the a runway, Qimingxing-50’s debut lasted 26 minutes and went off without incident, according to an official statement published in Science and Technology Daily.
The twin-fuselage drone has a wingspan measuring 50 metres and is powered solely by a solar array that covers most of its wing structure.
Despite the drone’s immense proportions, it is incredibly lightweight relative to its size. A 2018 prototype of Qimingxing-50 reportedly tipped the scales at just 18.9 kilograms, thanks to its frame fabricated from composite materials, including carbon fibre and reinforced plastic.
The lightweight flying machine operates in the upper limits of the stratosphere, some 20 kilometres (65 000 feet) above sea level and nearly twice the cruising altitude of commercial airliners.
At those heights, the drone can act as a sort of ”pseudo satellite”, carrying out tasks that would ordinarily be given to low-orbit satellites.
Occupying the upper edge of the stratosphere also means the unmanned craft can avoid almost all adverse weather conditions that tend to occur most frequently at lower altitudes.
According to the drone’s design chief, Zhu Shengli, a solar drone like Qimingxing-50 could stay operational for months and even years, relying solely on the sun’s energy.
Drones are also cheaper to construct and maintain, not requiring expensive and fuel-intensive rockets to place them into orbit, according to the Aviation Industry Corporation of China engineer.
China is not the only superpower exploring the potential of large, high-altitude drone technology. The US-developed solar-powered drone, Zephyr S, made its maiden voyage in August this year.
The 75 kilogram, 25 metre-wide prototype was designed by Airbus for the US Army, looking to further its “high-altitude operational goals”.
The drone succeeded in staying airborne for a little more than two months before crashing into the Arizona desert, according to the South China Morning Post.
Drones have made a profound impact on modern armies but their usefulness extends well beyond the battlefield. Their creation can monitor massive expanses of land and relay imaging and data back to earth in real time, said Zhu Shengli and his research unit.
With what is essentially a great eye in the sky, Chinese officials can track wildfires and freak weather events, allowing them to act as efficiently and timeously as possible.
Officials have also expressed interest in building a communications network based on the large, solar-powered vehicles, but a timeline for the development process has not been provided.