China's solar-powered drone completes maiden flight. It is twice as big as Zephyr S

It was airborne for 26 minutes.
Ameya Paleja
China's solar-powered drone
China's solar-powered drone


China's biggest solar-powered drone, Qimingxing-50, completed its maiden test flight over the weekend, CGTN has reported.

Drones have been used for military and civil purposes for quite a few years now. There are different ways of increasing the endurance of the drone, such as larger battery packs or fuel tanks. However, all these methods pale in comparison to the unlimited power supplied by the Sun.

This s why researchers have been working to make solar-powered drones that can not only stay airborne for longer but also perform a wide variety of roles while in the sky.

The pseudo-satellite

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 withstand rough weather, and therefore, the drones are flown in the stratosphere, where the risk from inclement weather is extremely low.

Flying at altitudes of 12 miles (20 km), these drones can surveil large parts of the Earth and therefore function as pseudo-satellites. From reconnaissance to environmental monitoring, geographic mapping to communications, these drones can be equipped with payloads that will help them carry out various roles. Moreover, the cost of launching such a drone is minimal compared to launching a satellite.

China's solar-powered drone

China's solar-powered drone has been dubbed Qimingxing-50, which translates to Morning Star 50 in English. The drone was built by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and has been in the works for a few years now.

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.

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The drone also deploys a twin-fuselage design and uses six propellers for its flight. 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 smooth flight. Officials confirmed to local media that all flight systems operated normally and the maiden flight was a success. This paves the way for future flights of the solar-powered drone that could last for many days or even months at a time, to begin with.

In the U.S., Airbus has been testing the Zephyr solar-powered drones for the past few years. Its latest iteration, the Zephyr S, came close to breaking the record for the most continuous flight when it stayed airborne for 64 days. Unfortunately, the aircraft crash landed in Arizona a mere few hours before it would have set a new record.

It is also important to note that the Zephyr S had a wingspan of 82 feet (25 m), while Morning Star boasts a wingspan of 50 m.

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