Craft would be capable of staying airborne for a week, developer says
China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, the nation's largest missile-maker, is developing a solar-powered unmanned aircraft capable of staying in the sky for a week.
The drone, which has yet to be named, will look much like a conventional fixed-wing plane and will be propelled by an electric motor and solar batteries. It will be able to operate for a week at an altitude of more than 20,000 meters, Ma Hongzhong, director of CASIC's Unmanned Aircraft Institute, said in an interview on Thursday.
The drone's wingspan will be about 25 meters and its maximum takeoff weight will be around 200 kilograms, he said, adding that the drone's first flight will be made soon.
Development started two years ago－a joint effort of Ma's institute and a research team from Europe, he said. He declined to provide details about the European partner.
"We are working with the European team to develop technologies and equipment for the plane. After the development is finished, my institute will be responsible for its marketing and sales," Ma said, adding that the State Oceanic Administration and the China Meteorological Administration have agreed to employ the aircraft for maritime emergency response and typhoon forecasting.
In the future, the drone will also be tasked with relaying communication signals and locating mineral resources because of its extended flight endurance at high altitude, he said.
Experts said there are no clouds at 20,000 meters or higher and the air at that altitude is stable, so the drone can take full advantage of its solar cells. As long as the solar power system works well, the aircraft can stay in the air as long as the controllers wish.
Ma said the institute plans to develop a series of solar-powered drones based on the first design. Future models will be larger and be capable staying airborne for a month, he said.
The China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics in Beijing has also developed a large solar-powered drone and is flight-testing it.
The United States and United Kingdom have already developed solar-powered drones capable of flying as high as 20,000 meters. The altitude record for such aircraft－29,524 meters－was set by the Helios Prototype developed by AeroVironment Inc in California, in August 2001.