Asia Minute: Solar-Powered Drones Advance in China

Nov 1, 2018

Solar Impulse 2 flight from Nagoya to Honolulu
Credit Solar Impulse

It’s been more than three years since a solar-powered airplane touched down in Hawai‘i after traveling more than 5,000 miles from Japan. The “Solar Impulse Two” set a distance record, but now there are solar-powered planes in the Asia Pacific with even more ambitious goals.

When the Solar Impulse Two landed in Hawai‘i in the summer of 2015, it had spent nearly five days and five nights in the air.

This week, crews tested a Chinese solar plane that’s designed to stay in the air for a matter of months. The Morning Star has some significant differences from its predecessor—for one thing there’s no crew — it’s an “unmanned aerial vehicle” — a drone.

And it’s much smaller.

The Solar Impulse Two had a wingspan roughly equivalent to a Boeing 747 and weighed more than two tons. The wingspan of the Chinese solar drone is about a quarter of that, and the weight is the stunning part.

Thanks to advances in material sciences, it comes in at only 42 pounds – less than one-percent the weight of the Solar Impulse Two.

The Aviation Industry of China is developing the plane – which is expected to have both civilian and military applications. Several other companies are working on similar technology in China, the United States and elsewhere.

While the Chinese are keeping their test results secret, when it comes to public tests, the industry leader for solar-powered drones remains a European company.

The Airbus Zephyr set an endurance flight record this summer — staying in the air for nearly 26 days at an altitude of 70,000 feet.