A solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a transformative technology that can change the way we collect energy. The UAV industry is growing with over 600,000 units projected to be sold annually by 2025.
It is estimated that there will be a 22% annual growth rate in the UAV industry from 2019 to 2025.
While the cost of traditional helicopters is falling, the cost of solar-powered ones is increasing, which makes them less attractive. Battery-powered UAVs now have a longer range than their solar-powered counterparts. Additionally, for remote use cases, the autonomy of a solar-powered UAV is superior to that of a battery-powered one.
Characterization Of Flight Performance
The performance of a UAV (e.g., how fast it can travel, how far it can go, and how long it can stay in the air) is largely dictated by the energy source. Battery-powered UAVs are more efficient than their solar-powered counterparts when it comes to flight time, but they have a limited range. On the other hand, solar-powered UAVs have unlimited range and can stay in the air for much longer periods of time. This makes them more suitable for long-distance travel and for performing aerial surveys.
Changing Energy Markets
The energy source chosen for a UAV determines many aspects of its performance, which in turn impacts the application it can be used for. To illustrate this point, consider the case of an oil company wanting to survey its oil fields using a drone. The UAV would need to be equipped with a camera to collect data, and it would need to be able to stay in the air for long enough to complete the survey. A solar-powered drone would be the obvious choice due to its range and due to its ability to fly for extended periods of time.
As more and more applications are developed for UAVs, so too will the need to characterize their energy use increase. The process of measuring and understanding a UAV’s energy use will become more important. Fortunately, some data already exists that can provide insight into the energy necessary to fly a drone.
The Watts Up With That?
One of the first documents that provide useful information about UAVs is the FAA’s “Watt’s Up With That? Electricity Consumption of UAVs” document. This document serves as a handy guide for commercial UAV operators who want to know how much electricity their drone is using while flying. The FAA document provides some key information including the type of battery used in the UAV, the voltage of discharge, and the average number of hours the drone spends in the air each day. Knowing this information can help a hobbyist or a small business owner understand how much electricity is consumed by a single drone in flight.
Additionally, if a UAV is equipped with a fuel cell, this information is also provided by the FAA. The fuel cell of a solar-powered drone provides instantaneous recharging while in flight, which makes it easier for the pilot to accomplish tasks such as surveillance or delivering supplies. The power of a typical, commercially available fuel cell ranges from 2.5 kW to 5 kW, providing a longer flight time than a typical lithium-ion battery. The downside to a fuel cell is that it is more expensive than a lithium-ion battery and it requires proper maintenance to ensure that it is operating efficiently.
Another useful document for comparing and contrasting UAVs is the Energy Trust’s report entitled “Drone Market Snapshot.” This report provides a general overview of the UAV industry with respect to pricing, applications, and future trends. One of the most interesting nuggets of information provided in this report is how the cost of a UAV varies widely depending on several factors, including the type of battery and the model of the UAV. A high-capacity, lithium-ion battery can cost around $600, but the same size lithium-ion battery that is used in a toy drone can cost up to $2,000 or more.
The information in this report is very helpful to individuals who are interested in purchasing a UAV for recreational use or for a small business. Additionally, if a business or an organization is looking to purchase a large number of UAVs for use in an industrial setting (e.g., to monitor and survey a vast area of land), this report can provide information about the cost of conventional lithium-ion batteries versus that of flywheels.
There are several prominent factors that make a UAV an attractive investment. First is the potential for the market to grow 22% per year from 2019 to 2025, which is faster than the average market growth rate. Second, many applications can be developed for a UAV, which makes it easier to determine an appropriate use case. Third, the performance of a UAV is largely dictated by its energy source, which makes it easier to characterize and compare one type of power to another.
All in all, the demand for UAVs will continue to grow, which in turn will make it more necessary to determine how much energy each model consumes. Fortunately, some of the information used to characterize energy consumption in a UAV is already available to the public, which makes it simpler to keep track of these numbers as the industry grows.