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China's military weapons

Chinese solar-powered drone Morning Star spreads its wings in successful test flight

  • Development of new materials gives aircraft wing a weight of less than 20kg
  • Morning Star could be sold into military and civilian markets
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 11:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 1:02am

China has successfully test-flown the Morning Star, a solar-powered drone designed to remain in the air for months.

Developer Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) announced that the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which has a 20-metre (66-foot) wingspan, attained and cruised at an altitude of more than 20,000 metres (66,000 feet).

“With the development and first flight, in addition to a great number of ground, wind tunnel and scale model tests … a solid foundation has been laid for follow-up development,” AVIC said. “We will move quickly towards large-scale, heavy load and long endurance solar-powered UAVs.”

The main wing structure had an “impossibly superlight” weight of 18.9kg (42lbs), it said, thanks to a new material development.

AVIC did not reveal details of the test, but said it followed an endurance flight of a 10-metre wingspan prototype Morning Star in September. In that test, the aircraft flew autonomously for about five hours.

The high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft could serve as an alternative to satellites and carry out military tasks including reconnaissance, navigation and telecommunications transport.

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Developers say the Morning Star has great potential for civilian markets in roles as environmental monitoring, communications and maritime patrols.

The leading solar-powered UAV is Airbus’ Zephyr, described by the manufacturer as a high-altitude pseudo-satellite.

In August, the 25-metre-wide (82-foot-wide) Zephyr S – which weighs 75kg (165lbs)– took the endurance flight record to nearly 26 days at an altitude of 21,300 metres (70,000 feet). It has gone into mass production with annual capacity of about 30 vehicles.

AVIC’s 20-metre demonstrator began production at the end of 2017 and was completed in July.

Beside’s AVIC, several other Chinese institutions such as China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation are also working on similar projects, aiming to create a telecommunication network based on UAVs.