China has released its largest drone yet, and it is nothing short of extraordinary. The Caihong-T4 designed by Chinese Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA) is a solar-powered drone with an enormous wingspan of 40 meters (~130 feet), and the drone has already set a national flight record.
The CH-T4 weighs only 400 kg (880 lb) with payload included and can travel up to speeds of 200 kilometers an hour. Eight electrical propellers powered by solar energy keep the craft aloft for days at a time traveling at altitudes of 20,000 meters ( 65,000 feet) at the top speed of 200 kilometers an hour (125 mph).
The lightweight carbon fiber and plastic made Caihong-T4 also called Rainbow T-4 has a double-bodied fuselage, cranked wing, and twin tail. The 40-meter wingspan of the drone makes it even wider than Boeing 737 jetliner. The craft has a line of sight radio and visual coverage of 1,000,000 square kilometers.
The CH-T4 has set up a national flight record for the longest flight, but the CAAA scientists are not settling for that. They are aiming to extend the flight time to several months with minimal supervision. The drone can fly high enough to stay above the clouds and get access to sunlight at all times during the day and store the energy in its batteries for use during the night.
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Facebook are already in the race for developing long-duration drones, and China has just hopped in the competition with the CH-T4. The long flight drone can be used both in civilian and military applications, providing communication services in disconnected areas or between distant aircraft and ships or simply to the rural households.
The CH-T4 is China’s best, but NASA Helios Prototype beats it in size and flight altitude. Helios has a wingspan of 75 meters (246-feet) and flight height of 30,000 meters. The Helios aims for a sustained flight of at least 24 hours at 30,000 meters, including at least 14 hours above 15,000 meters.
Most applications of UAVs that we see today in the civilian use is package delivery and carrying rockets for the military, but the future holds something different. The drones in the future with such extended flights will be collecting data at all times.