BEIJING — China's latest-generation combat drone has made its maiden flight in what its developer says is a sign that the country is catching up with industry leader the United States.
The Wing Loong II that flew for the first time Monday can carry up to 480 kilograms (1,058 pounds) of bombs and missiles, tucking six under each wing, according to information viewed Wednesday on the Aviation Industry Corporation of China's microblog.
The drone has a wingspan of 20.5 meters (67 feet 3 inches), can stay airborne up to 20 hours and fly at a maximum altitude of 9,000 meters (29,500 feet), according to the company known as AVIC.
The drone's successful test flight "allows China to follow the U.S. in producing a new generation of integrated surveillance and combat unmanned aerial vehicles," the company said in the microblog posting.
State media say the drone should become a leading export item for China following the success of the original Wing Loong that has been sold to a number of countries, including several in the Middle East. Along with inexpensive fighter jets and naval patrol boats, drones are a high-tech standout item among China's substantial exports of more workaday weaponry such as assault rifles and rocket launchers.
While both the Wing Loong II's advertised payload and cruising altitude fall well short compared with the MQ-9 Reaper in service with the U.S. military, it is expected to be highly competitive on price.
While AVIC didn't provide the cost of a Wing Loong II, its predecessor, with a payload of only about 100 kilograms (220 pounds), reportedly sold for about $1 million each, a fraction of the Reaper's $14.75 million price tag.