Solar drones: what you need to know

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Solar drones are a new gadget within the larger drone market. While drones are commonly used these days for filming videos, taking pictures from above, or drone racing with friends, drones are also used for commercial or defense purposes.

One of the issues with commercial or defense-oriented drones is their ability to hold a charge for long trips. That’s why researchers have been looking towards solar energy as a way to power drones in flight, as well as using solar energy systems to power fleets of drones.

What are solar drones?

Any remote-controlled aircraft that flies without a pilot is considered to be a drone, otherwise known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Under this definition, aircrafts that’re considered drones include anything from small toy helicopters to larger surveillance planes used for military purposes.

Within this category, solar drones are defined as drones that use solar cells powered directly from the sun. Manufacturers looking to build solar drone products that will run as long as possible will typically look for the most lightweight solar solution (such as thin-film products), as the heavier the solar cells are, the more power it will take to keep the drone in the air. Ideally, these solar cells will also have as high efficiency as possible, given that drones will typically have limited surface space available to place solar cells.

Benefits of solar drones

To date, solar drones have been used for mapping, surveillance, remote sensing, and more. Solar drones have also been researched as a way to provide internet access to rural communities. Both Google and Facebook have invested in projects looking at using solar-powered drones for this purpose, but the projects have since been canceled.

While there are a number of issues associated with flying drones for long periods – such as the risk of the drone losing connectivity with its controller – utilizing solar energy to power a drone can help reduce the need for drones to return to their base for charging. With the right combination of solar technology and storage, a drone has the potential to run for longer distances. This means less time on the ground, regardless of the purpose it’s serving.

The solar energy used to fuel the drone is renewable as well, which means spending less money on drawing electricity from the grid to power the drones.

Types of solar drones

There are several solar drone products that have been developed in recent years, or are currently in development. Here are some examples of solar drones.

Sunbirds

The SB4 Phoenix

Sunbirds, a French company established in 2015, designs and sells solar drones that can travel for up to 10+ hours under ideal conditions. Their solar drones fly autonomously, but can also be controlled by remote control if needed. Sunbirds solar drones are equipped with cameras to use for mapping and aerial photography and come with a 1-year warranty for buyers.

AeroVironment

The Helios Prototype

AeroVironment, a California-based company, is a leader in UAVs for defense and commercial purposes. In January 2018, the company announced a joint venture with Japanese multinational Softbank to build high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) solar drones for commercial purposes.

This is not the company’s first entrance into the solar drone space; AeroVironment created a solar drone in collaboration with NASA known as the Helios Prototype, which reached an altitude of 96,863 ft in 2001. Though not AeroVironment’s first time producing the technology, this new venture will the company’s first attempt at building solar drones for commercial sales.

Charging traditional drones with solar

Placing solar cells on drones isn’t the only drone technology in research and development. Companies are also looking into using solar power as a way to charge a traditional drone fleet. One company developing this type of charging product is Envision Solar.

This California-based company has a number of other solar products available on the market today, including a solar tree and EV chargers. Now, the company is branching into the solar drone space with the UAV ARC.

The UAV ARC is designed to address distance and range-related issues associated with drone deliveries by acting as a drone charger. Like Envisions EV ARC, the UAV ARC is will be completely off-grid and equipped with batteries. This allows for the product to be much more scalable, as it doesn’t require connection to a utility company to operate. This “off grid” capability allows the chargers to be placed anywhere that drone fleets can access and recharge, including remote areas or even out at sea.

The UAV ARC will not only be used for charging drone fleets but also to gather intelligence about the health of the solar drones so they can report performance information back to the owners. The UAV ARC is also expected to come with similar warranties to their existing products, which include manufacturer warranties for the panels, batteries, the inverter, and the structure itself.

Envision UAV ARC Warranties

ComponentWarranty duration (years)
Panels25
Inverter4
Battery1
Structure1

As of mid 2018, the UAV ARC is still a concept and not currently on the market. However, Envision notes that it’s in an advanced stage of development.

Where can I find solar drones for sale?

While many toy drones are available on Amazon nowadays, most solar drone technologies are not yet sold publicly – research and testing is still underway. Solar drone products that are available for sale are typically only for military, government or commercial use.

Even though it’s not easy to buy solar drones today, you can still use the power of the sun to provide electricity to the drone you own today. A solar panel system on your home or business will not only provide power to your drone but a number of other gadgets and appliances. Going solar will help you save money on your electricity bill overall (and the more money you save, the more you’ll have to buy new drones!)

If you want to compare costs and savings for a solar installation on your property, sign up on the EnergySage Solar Marketplace. You’ll be able to receive and evaluate multiple quotes from reputable, local installers. If you want to start with a quick estimate on the costs and savings with going solar, try our Solar Calculator.





Don



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