China unveils plans for solar-powered telecoms drones

Natalie Bannerman
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China launches project 'flying cloud' as it attempts to build a drone powered telecoms network in space

A project aptly named “Flying cloud” (Feiyun) sees China commit to building a high-altitude solar-powered drone network. The plan is to create a network capable of providing week-long assistance on the ground in the event of an emergency.

According to the Global Times, a research institute affiliated with China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp is developing the project.

Ma Hongzhong, head of the institute, was quoted as saying that the drones are able to fly as high as 20km above the ground for days on end and can use remote sensing and relay signals, mimicking traditional satellites. The network itself will be based in near space and is likely to be trialed later this year.

The drones are easy to maintain and control, providing better high-resolution data than satellites. It also has applications as airborne Wifi hubs providing mobile and internet access across remote areas, saving costs on traditional infrastructure.

Despite the ability of the drones to aid rescuers in the aftermath of natural disasters, experts have warned that environment in near space, which is 20-100km above sea level, could affect the UAVs as the thin air inhibits the functioning of fuel-powered aircraft engines.

Wang Peiji, an expert at Harbin Institute of Technology’s School of Aeronautics, thinks that the UAVs also have military uses: “Its remote sensing technology can help the military get accurate information with higher definition.”

The first priority of the research team is to focus on the development of the drone’s core technologies, including energy usage, power generation, pneumatic systems, and structure, so as to carry out flight trials as soon as possible.

China’s first solar-powered UAV, the Rainbow (Caihong), completed its first successful near-space test flight in June. In the UK, EE earlier this year unveiled its offering in the market, with the launch of its 4G balloon mast technology.