China’s biggest solar-powered drone, Qimingxing-50, completed its first test flight over the weekend, CGTN has reported.
The researchers have been working to make solar-powered drones that can stay in the air for a long time and perform several roles while airborne.
Solar-powered drones are designed to be light in weight. They might appear large and even deploy two fuselages to fit in their large frames on which the power-tapping solar panels sit. However, these frames cannot tolerate rough weather.
Flying at the height of 12 miles (20 km), these drones can surveil large parts of the Earth and hence, work as pseudo-satellites. From reconnaissance to environmental monitoring, geographic mapping to communications, these drones can carry payloads that will help them in multiple roles. Moreover, the cost of launching such a drone is minimal compared to launching a satellite.
China’s solar-powered drone is named Qimingxing-50, which translates to Morning Star 50 in English. The drone was built by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC).
In 2018, China tested the first iteration of Morning Star, which was 91 feet (28 m) wide. Made from carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, the drone weighed a mere 41 pounds (18.9 kg). In comparison, the Morning Star 50 is much larger and has a wingspan of 164 feet (50 m), South China Morning Post reported.
On Saturday, Morning Star-50 took off from an airport in Yulin City in the Shaanxi province in northwest China and landed back 26 minutes later after a successful flight. All flight systems functioned normally, and the first flight was a success.
In the U.S., Airbus has been testing the Zephyr solar-powered drones for the past few years. Its latest model, the Zephyr S, came close to breaking the record for the most continuous flight when it stayed airborne for 64 days.
The Zephyr S had a wingspan of 82 feet (25 m), while Morning Star has a wingspan of 50 m.