Alta Devices, a thin film solar cell manufacturer based in Silicon Valley, has been working with the military defence contractor AeroVironment, to develop a drone that can remain airborne for longer, allowing it to carry out missions that were before deemed impossible.
By using Alta’s advance, ultra-thin and highly efficient solar cells in conjunction with AeroVironment’s compact, efficient battery, they were able to produce a 13 pound prototype drone that can fly for nine hours and eleven minutes. Traditional drones can only achieve around two hours before returning to the ground for recharging, but the protoype’s new battery can hold a charge for 3 hours, and the solar cells can then completely recharge the battery mid-flight twice during daylight hours.
The extended flying time, not only allows the drone to carry out longer missions, but also reduces the operating costs. Forbes reports that unfortunately one of the problems with drones is their inability to land gracefully. When returning back to earth the drone’s motor tends to cut out at a certain altitude allowing the drone to glide to the floor, in theory; unfortunately the drones often hit the ground hard causing pieces to break off. Drone operators always carry many spare parts in order to fix the drone whilst its battery is being charged and get it ready for a return to the skies.
By staying the air three times longer, the prototype drone should be able to reduce its operating costs by around three times, as it won’t need to be fixed as often.
Adding solar cells to recharge a drone mid-flight may seem like a simple idea, but actually creating such a drone is not as easy to achieve. Weight and size are very important things in the design of a drone, and the average solar cells are too bulky and heavy. Alta’s cells are mega efficient, meaning that they can produce a lot of power from the small area that the drone provides, and they are just 1 micron thick, compared with the normal 180 microns, making them extremely light.
AeroVironment hopes to be able to release the prototype drone for sale in the commercial market at the beginning of 2014. It believes that the uses will not just be military, but also agricultural, where it can be used to spray fields of crops with pesticide or fertilizer across a large area; or energy companies who can use the drones for surveillance of transmission lines, or to survey damage after storms.
By. Joao Peixe of Oilprice.com
Joao is a writer for Oilprice.com