There’s Still Hope for a Solar-Powered Drone
Renewable energy is a hot topic in society today, and businesses in every sector have promoted green products. More businesses are creating products with recycled materials or using less plastic, and tech giants are investing in green technology and energy. Drone technology is not exempt from this. A common set-back for drone pilots is energy efficiency. For any UAV pilot, a solar-powered drone would be a game-changer. With solar panels, a drone could of course harness energy from the sun to fly, but also store excess energy to use when the sun isn't available.
The longest estimated flight time for a drone is the DJI Mavic 2's 31 minutes, which is significantly longer than other high-end models which are starting to reach at least 20 minutes. However, there may come a time when pilots can fly their drones all day. How much could someone accomplish if you could fly your drone for the whole day?
Big name companies have been trying to develop a drone that could fly using solar power. Facebook's attempt was Project Aquila, which not only set out to create a solar-powered drone, but also give internet access to remote areas. Their goal was to create a fleet of solar-powered drones that would be able to fly over these areas, transmitting internet accessibility. While the team had experienced some success, Facebook announced that they would be closing their project's facility and abandoning the project altogether.
In 2013, Titan Aerospace unveiled the Solara 50. Solara 50 was the "world's first solar powered unmanned aircraft that can function as an atmospheric satellite." It carries 3,000 solar cells , and inside it's wing are lithium ion battery banks which store excess energy. It was actually more cost-efficient to maintain than conventional satellites. In 2014, Google acquired Titan Aerospace and planned on furthering the project, dubbing in Project Skybender. However, similar to Facebook, Google abandoned the project in 2017.
That brings us to 2018, when a university's engineering department successfully tested their prototype for a solar-powered quadcopter. The National University of Singapore Engineering flew Asia's first solar-powered quadcopter this August without reliance on batteries. Reportedly, their test flights show that the drone is capable of flying as high as 10 metres in the air. The NUS press states that this is an exceptional feat, especially because of the physics surrounding the amount of energy it requires for an aircraft to takeoff with rotary wings. Up until this point, solar-powered UAV's have been fixed wind crafts because they are more efficient in generating lift.
Since the technology is still in its early stages, no one knows when a fully solar-powered UAV may take flight into the marketplace. Regardless, the success of this project and the interest of top tech companies is reason enough to be hopeful for more energy efficient drones and the possibility of full days of flight.
I am a writer and an artist based in Georgia. Specializing in illustration, graphic design, and video art, I love to explore the new ways technology intersects with art. I think drones have done amazing things for photography and video art, making what would previously be costly and difficult more accessible. As a complete novice, it was only recently that I saw what independent artists could do with their drones, and I continue to be impressed by the sights that drones are able to explore and the images they can capture. Instagram: @tyesha.ferron