China’s new solar drone can shoot missiles from ‘near-space’

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Caihong (CH) project team personnel pose for a picture in front of the vehicle. Photo: People's Daily via IC

The newest version of the People’s Liberation Army’s solar-powered, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) completed a live-ammunition test under extreme weather conditions last month, the People’s Daily reported on Monday. The Caihong (CH), which means “rainbow” in Mandarin, has been developed by the Beijing Aerospace Propulsion Institute under the auspices of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

The latest variant of the CH-4 drone underwent a six-day intensive bombing test in northwestern China. CASC reported that it flew smoothly for over 15 hours at an altitude of 20 kilometers, making it China’s first ‘near-space’ solar drone.

‘Near space’ refers to heights between 20 and 100 km above sea level, where thin air reduces the performance of traditional fuel-burning aircraft engines. By contrast, solar drones can perform well in the outer layer of the earth’s atmosphere and may, in the future, be capable of flying non-stop for months or even longer, according to the Caihong’s lead designer, Li Guangjia.

Solar panels on the Chinese drone’s wings have a span of 45 meters. The latest version’s power efficiency and “multiple mount points” design enable it to carry a variety of weapons, including 50kg cluster bombs. It can also shoot various guided missiles, in all weathers, and conduct precise surgical strikes from near-space heights and over long distances.

The CASC has highlighted the drone’s compatibility with a whole range of missiles and bombs as a major selling point on the international market.

The hit-rate of any guided weapon, be it laser- or satellite-guided, may be undermined by inclement weather conditions or by electronic jamming on certain types of missiles. The CASC believes the latest drone to be able to cope with these challenges, however.

The CH will perform as a “quasi-satellite” and “an airborne Wi-Fi router” in the future, and has the potential to supplant some telecom satellites in replaying data transmission.

CH drones have been sold to militaries in more than 10 countries including Pakistan and Turkmenistan, Xinhua noted.

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