Caihong China's Solar Powered Aircraft
The Caihong is China's largest solar-powered unmanned aircraft. Source - popsci

The China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics has developed China’s largest solar-powered aircraft. Named ‘The Caihong’ which means rainbow, it is China’s most advanced unmanned aircraft and can fly up to an altitude of 20,000 meters which is domestically the highest altitude such a plane has ever reached.

The Caihong was tested at an unidentified airport in Northwest China and was declared a success by the head of the academy for unmanned aircraft development. The drone took flight in the morning and flew till late at night, powered entirely by solar energy. The aircraft is still in the development phase and requires several more years before it can be made available to users.

The Caihong, abbreviated as CH, is the name given to a series of Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles.

Features and Use

Although the actual size of the drone has not yet been revealed officially and the development, technology and features of this drone are shrouded in secrecy, according to some sources the Caihong is 130-foot-wide and is powered by eight propellers. It is capable of flying over an area of 65,000 feet for days and is capable of attaining a speed of up to 125 miles per hour. It is super lightweight and features a double body fuselage, cracked wing, and twin tail.

It visually looks huge but only weighs between 880 and 1,100 pounds, due to the carbon fiber and plastic components used in the manufacturing of this aircraft.

The goal is to keep the drone in the air for as long as the controllers desire, for several months. Development and research work is under way to make this goal a reality.

Solar-powered drones can cover large areas and are economical. This solar powered drone can be used by organizations and the Government for Earth observation, emergency response services, communications, the internet, marine survey and inspection and general surveillance.

Any aerial vehicle that can fly near space but within the Earth’s atmosphere is called an ‘atmospheric satellite’. Such a machine can perform the functions of a low-orbit satellite. Any unmanned aerial vehicle which is powered by the sun can stay in the air for a very long time. According to the designer of the Caihong, “If we don’t consider the life span of the parts, this kind of aerial vehicle could theoretically fly forever!”

This would mean that such a vehicle could be aptly used for surveillance and information gathering purpose. The Caihong’s main goal is to attain near-space altitude. This would make this drone capable of flying over commercial airplanes and below satellites in space.

With China’s Rainbow series of unmanned aerial vehicles, it has challenged and broken the monopoly of the US in the field of drone technology. Globally, Chinese drones are being used for both research as well as surveillance purpose and are giving US drones a run for their money.

Development of Solar-Powered Drone Technology

China is largely researching and developing drones. Drone technology institutes are found in every part of the country. Notable among these institutes are Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Jiangsu province, Beihang University in Beijing, and Northwestern Polytechnical University in Shaanxi province.

Although the solar-powered drones developed by China are small and technologically less advanced, the Caihong is the first of its kind in the country that has achieved such an altitude and level of advancement. Normal drones used for military purposes which are powered by fuel can fly up to an altitude of 8000 meters. Only the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, a top military-purpose drone being used in the United States, can reach altitudes of 18,000 meters.

If a drone needs to remain in the air for longer, it is crucial that its altitude is increased because above 20,000 meters the sky is clear of clouds and airflow is stable which enables the drone to capture and utilize the sun’s energy to its full potential. Such a drone can even stay in the air for months as long as the aircraft’s systems are working properly.

Solar powered drones are better than fuel powered drones for a number of reasons. Solar powered drones do not require to land in order to refuel, which makes it possible to keep them in the air for longer. They are lighter in weight and can achieve higher altitudes as a result. Running on solar energy makes them highly economical as compared to using fuel every time.

Solar-Powered Drones around the World

Both the UK and the US have solar powered drones. The highest a drone has flown is 29,524 meters. This record was established by a prototype of Helios, the US-made drone developed by AeroVironment Inc in California.

As many as 10 countries are currently using Chinese drones. All these drones are made by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics.

Facebook is developing its own solar-powered drone named Aquila. The drone has successfully passed initial tests. The purpose of facebook’s drone is to beam the Internet directly down from the sky via its drone to areas where there is no or bad internet access. A fleet of such drones will be manufactured to do the job anywhere in the world.

Another solar-powered drone by the name of AtlantikSolar made a world record for endurance when it flew for 81 hours straight. It has been developed at the ETH Zurich’s Autonomous Systems Lab.

‘Solar Impulse-2’ flown in 2015 is the world’s first solar-powered aircraft. It was flown by Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard and his co-pilot Borschbergh. The aircraft flew purely on solar energy and used no fuel. Weight-wise it is a light aircraft with wings spanning the same length as those of a Boeing 747. It makes use of 17,000 solar cells built into its carbon fiber wings. Therefore, it is an eco-friendly aircraft with no fuel or polluting emissions.

The Future of Drones

Drone technology is a vital part of our future. Drones are important not only from a military point of view but also for multiple civilian purposes. Many countries have now adopted drones into their military where they have become a weapon of choice for many practical purposes. They are economical, can be put to use during wartime as well as peacetime for surveillance and information gathering. They can be sent to remote locations without fear of loss of human life in case of any mishap and can be used for weapons

Drones are economical to use, can be put to use during wartime as well as peacetime for surveillance and information gathering. They can be sent to remote locations without fear of loss of human life in case of any mishap and can be used for weapons deployment without ever going near the battle-field.

The civilian use of drones is gaining immense popularity. Drones are now being used in areas like photography, wildlife monitoring, weather forecasts, agriculture, rescue operations and healthcare, disaster management, marine studies etc. They are being used in area studies, journalism, filming, shipping and delivery services, archeological surveys, geo-mapping, safety inspections and even making in-roads into sports.

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