Powering an aircraft with solar panels seems like an obvious choice — they’re up high with good sun exposure, and a continuous source of electricity would be incredibly beneficial for long flights. We’ve seen that concept implemented on gliders, which have the benefit of a large surface area and very efficient flight. Now, students from the National University of Singapore have built a drone that can fly with just solar power.
While solar-powered drones have been attempted in the past, most were only marginally successful. It takes a lot of energy to keep a drone in the air, and heavy solar panels just exacerbate the problem. Most drones that integrate solar panels simply use them for supplementary power. This new design, on the other hand, relies entirely on the solar panels, and can keep flying as long as the sun is out.
The key to the drone’s ability to fly with just power from the sun is in how light it is — the entire quadcopter weighs just 2.6 kg (5.7 lbs). The team was able to keep the weight down by building the frame from lightweight, but strong, carbon fiber. Because it receives all of its power from the solar panels, they were able to further reduce the weight by getting rid of heavy batteries altogether. It can be flown remotely like any other drone, and it’s also equipped with a GPS system so it can fly autonomously.