It is no secret that solar power can meet the entire world’s energy demands, but the key is to harness enough of it. The world is slowly moving towards generating enough solar power to make it a viable alternative. Costs of generating solar power have also gone down in the recent years. Solar power can be generated all day and power reserves or batteries can keep supplying the required energy through the night. With Solar Impulse completing its flight around the world successfully and fully on solar power, there is no doubt that the energy from the sun is reliable, usable in all known forms and it is a realistic alternative.
However, solar power hasn’t been explored much in the ambit of drones. You may have seen solar cells, albeit tiny ones, in analog calculators and other old appliances. It is known that solar cells power the satellites. But the power needed for small devices like the calculators is dwarfed when compared to the power requisite of drones. Also, the kind of solar panels that satellites have cannot be used on drones. The large heavyweight solar panels or cells will make drones inefficient.
All that is changing as drone maker AeroVironment has succeeded in outfitting some Puma drones with lightweight and very thin layers of solar cells that are highly efficient. The solar cells have been developed by a startup called Alta Devices. After installing the small solar cells, the drones can carry infrared cameras and communication devices, fly at their intended heights or altitudes anywhere from nine to twelve hours. This is in sharp contrast to the three to four hours of flight time that is typical in drones today.
Given the fact that the drones are still carrying the batteries that power them now, this is a path breaking development. Drones are not considered long distance aerial vehicles precisely because they don’t have enough power. There are large drones like the ones used by the military but they are few and far between. There are no commercial applications of such drones. The smaller and lighter drones used in the logistics industry, by the media and even security companies cannot use larger batteries but they could do with more power.
Alta Device’s finely thin and lightweight solar cells are a fine combination of size, weight and power. They can be installed without adding much weight to the wings of a drone and they can use as much as one third of the sunlight the cells get exposed to. Think of the old film used in cameras and you would correctly picture the solar cells of Alta Device.