Charging Drones with Lasers So They Can Fly Forever

When it comes to using drones for commercial applications, battery life is one of the biggest limiting factors.

Drones

Drones


Extending battery life has proved a tough challenge, and one that the drone industry has been laboring away at for years.

All this work has produced steady progress, with battery life steadily increasing. But the gains in flight time for drones that fly using your standard LiPo batteries have been relatively small despite all the work put into extending them.

Some less common approaches to powering drones have been tested, and seem promising. One is using hydrogen fuel cells, and tests have also been made with powering drones using gasoline (though these don’t seem to have gone anywhere).

Of course, you can also use a tether to send power up to the drone, allowing it to stay aloft as long as you want—but this means the drone has to remain stationary, since it’s leashed to the ground by the tether.

But there may be a way to power drones from a removed power source without having to tether them to ground.

That’s right—we’re talking about powering drones with lasers.

Drones

Drones


Credit: Northwestern Polytechnical University

NEW BREAKTHROUGHS FOR LASER-POWERED DRONES

The idea of using lasers as a power source for drones has been around for at least a decade.

But new research conducted by scientists at the Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU) in China has been making the news lately, showing progress in work toward making this technology viable.

The team of researchers at NPU have equipped a drone with a module that converts light energy into electricity, allowing it to capture power from a high-energy laser beam so it can stay in flight indefinitely.

The researchers have dubbed these UAVs optics-driven drones (ODDs).

lasers-drones-china
Credit: Northwestern Polytechnical University

Of course, for this laser-powering method to work the laser needs to be able to automatically track the drone.

For this reason, the researchers have made the laser adaptive and given it the ability to track its target—the photoelectric conversion module on the bottom of the drone—using an “intelligent visual tracking algorithm.”

According to NPU researchers, the algorithm has proven effective in a variety of environments, as well as differing light and weather conditions.

The lasers used to power the drone also have an adaptive technology that allows them to shape their beams autonomously, adjusting intensity as needed based on the distance the drone is from the power source and in instances where an object is detected between the laser beam and the drone.

The laser-power drone technology was recently tested on a small quadcopter. Tests were conducted outside at night and inside with both the lights on and off.

In the tests, the drone reaches a height of just about 33 feet in the air (see below for images from the tests).

laser-charged-drone
Credit: Northwestern Polytechnical University

So far the NPU system has proven to be pretty inefficient, losing about 50% of the energy transmitted from the laser.

But it works.

And that may be all that matters right now, given that electricity is fairly inexpensive and that the approach allows the drone to can stay in the air indefinitely.

OTHER LASER-CHARGING DRONE PROJECTS

Here’s a quick rundown of other noteworthy efforts to charge drones with lasers.

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