An artistic impression of a Feiyun solar drone currently under development. Photo: Handout

Competition among drone makers in China is heating up, with several manufacturers vying to operate the nation’s first solar-powered drone. State-owned space and aviation conglomerate China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC) now reportedly enjoys a head start with its Feiyun (flying clouds) program.

A technician with the company told Xinhua of “satisfactory advances” toward building a solar-powered, drone-based, near-space network for long-distance emergency telecommunications and Internet services.

CASIC conducted more than 100 test flights of its solar drone prototype last year, paving the way for larger trials for its Feiyun long-range solar-powered aircraft series beginning in 2020, when a drone network is expected to make a first-ever cross-China journey.

The Feiyun solar drone employs photovoltaic cells and powerful electric motors mounted on its monoplane airframe made from ultralight composite materials. The entire aircraft reportedly weighs less than a ton, even though its wingspan is said to be comparable with that of commercial wide-body passenger jets like the Boeing 777.

More than 10,000 photovoltaic cells on the drone’s upper wing surfaces generate electricity to power its motors while charging lithium-sulfur batteries to power night flying.

The term “near space” refers to the region of the Earth’s atmosphere between 20 and 100 kilometers above sea level, encompassing the stratosphere, mesosphere and the lower thermosphere. It is located at altitudes above where commercial airliners fly, but below orbiting satellites.

Flying solar drones to such a rarefied height makes commercial sense as there are no clouds at an altitude of 20km or higher but airflow there is stable, ideal for a drone to harness sunlight to propel itself and theoretically allowing it to remain aloft throughout an entire diurnal solar cycle or even indefinitely, as an Earth observation, reconnaissance and communications platform.

When carrying communication relaying devices, the drone will be able to link users in remote areas to the Internet while it circles the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.

CASIC did not disclose the overall investment in the Feiyun program but hailed technology that will allow it to operate drones at the edge of the atmosphere as “out of this world.”

Elsewhere, Airbus is also plowing money into its Zephyr lightweight solar-powered drones. The development of the aircraft is ongoing and currently part of the Airbus High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite program.

British newspapers reported in 2015 that the UK was to field a “British-designed unmanned aircraft that will fly at the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere and allow us to monitor our adversaries for weeks on end.” The UK has bought a number of the Zephyr units.

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