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A new large-scale solar-powered UAV could break the American monopoly in this class of unmanned aerial vehicles. The UAV, produced by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA), will make its high-altitude flight by midyear, reported.

The UAV will seek to reach near-space, an altitude above where commercial airliners fly, but below orbiting satellites. The vehicle is commonly referred to as an “atmospheric satellite” for it’s ability to perform low-orbit satellite tasks.

The device usually features longer hovering time, higher communication capacity and higher image resolution than a usual reconnaissance satellite that can only visit a designated region periodically. Besides, the price of a solar UAV and its launch cost are far lower than a satellite.

The Chinese vehicle has a wingspan of over 40 meters. Its designer, CAAA’s chief UAV engineer Shi Wen, calls it the world’s largest solar-powered drone now, even dwarfing the U.S. NASA Pathfinder series that never made it into mass production.

The solar UAV can easily stay airborne for months in the future. “If we don’t consider the lifespan of the parts, this kind of aerial vehicle could theoretically fly forever,” said its designer.

CAAA is a subsidiary of the NASA-like China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. Its principal mission testing the aerodynamic performance of China’s aerial and aerospace vehicles, including rockets, space modules and atmospheric reentry-vehicles.

CAAA started to develop drones to break the monopoly of the U.S. drones such as Global Hawk and Reaper in the global arms market. They have already displayed their capabilities in geological and maritime surveillance at home as well as anti-terrorism activities in the Middle East and Africa.