Using Sunlight To Power Drone Flight

A team of researchers and engineers in Singapore have devised a quadcopter drone that is powered solely by sunlight and has flown above ten meters in test flights.

AsianScientist (Sep. 7, 2018) – Scientists in Singapore have developed a prototype of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which requires no battery or energy storage on board, relying only on solar power to fly.

Aircraft that can take off and land directly without the need for a runway, such as helicopters and quadcopters, are attractive for personal, commercial and military applications as they require less physical space and infrastructure compared to traditional fixed-wing planes. Rotary-winged aircraft are significantly less efficient at generating lift compared to their fixed-wing counterparts. Hence, while there have been examples of solar airplanes in recent years, a viable 100 percent solar rotary aircraft that can take off and land vertically remains a major engineering challenge to date.

A team from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has now developed a quadcopter drone that draws power only from sunlight, further demonstrating that the prototype can fly above ten meters. The drone was constructed using lightweight carbon fiber material, weighs 2.6 kilograms and has a surface area of approximately four square meters. It is fitted with 148 individually characterized silicon solar cells and supported by a frame equipped with four rotors.

“Our aircraft is extremely lightweight for its size, and it can fly as long as there is sunlight, even for hours. Unlike conventional quadcopter drones, our aircraft does not rely on on-board batteries and hence it is not limited by flight time. Its ability to land on any flat surface and fly out of the ground effect in a controlled way also makes it suitable for practical implementation,” said Associate Professor Aaron Danner of NUS who supervised the project.

The solar-powered quadcopter drone can be controlled by remote control or programmed to fly autonomously using a GPS system incorporated into the aircraft. The aircraft can potentially be used as a ‘flying solar panel’ to provide emergency solar power to disaster areas, as well as for photography, small package delivery, surveillance and inspection. Batteries can be incorporated to power the aircraft when there is no sunlight or for charging to take place during flight to enable operation when it is cloudy or dark. Other hardware such as cameras can also be included for specific applications.

The team will continue to fine-tune the aircraft to further improve its efficiency. With these enhancements, they hope to bring the technology closer to commercialization, said the researchers.


Source: National University of Singapore.
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