China recently underlined its role as the global leader in renewable energy when it switched on the world’s largest floating solar power plant. Now the country has set some kind of a domestic record after it launched the largest unmanned solar-powered aircraft by reaching an altitude of more than 20,000 meters during what is being called as a secretive test flight.
The ‘Caihong-T4’ (CH-T4), or Rainbow, developed by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA), is believed to be about a 130 feet long aircraft that is designed to fly at more than 65,000 feet, for days on end.
Despite its massive size and wingspan, the Caihong has a super lightweight body which weighs between 880 to 1100 pounds. The aircraft owes this light-weight feature to its carbon fibre and plastic components. Moreover, it can reach speeds up to 125 miles per hour.
Propelled by eight electrical propellers, the CH-T4 has a double-bodied fuselage, cranked wing and twin tail. The large wingspan of about 40 metres makes the aircraft wider than a Boeing 737 jetliner. It has line-of-sight radio and a visual coverage of over 400,000 square miles, an area almost equivalent to the size of Egypt (yes, the country).
Shi Wen, head of unmanned aircraft development at CAAA, told China Daily that the Caihong took off from a northwestern China airport and, remained in the air all day, and landed successfully during the same night.
In size and flight altitude, the Caihong is second to only NASA’s Helios prototype which is also a solar-powered flying aircraft with a 246-foot wingspan and an elevation of more than 96,000 feet.
Although the aircraft had a successful flight test, the creators say it will take years of work before the aircraft is ready for real use. In the future, the creators hope that it will be able to stay in the air for months, or even years at a time at and extremely high altitude.
The drone will primarily be used by the government to gather information from around the world, but its services will also be applied to internet providers, data relay and communication companies. It can also provide broadband to rural Chinese households. For militaries, tech like this provides an excellent platform for surveillance missions against military and terrorist targets.
Today, the usage of drones might be limited to parcel-delivering or for taking flying selfies, but some of the most important drones of the future may be those like the Caihong, invisible and high up, collecting information day in and day out.
Title image: popsci