Extending the limited flight time of commercial drones remains a major operational and technological challenge. Some see the solution in smaller, lighter-weight batteries with greater storage capacity. Others suggest the need for prepositioned drone docking stations. But the best long-term solution may be the development of a wireless charging capability which allows the drone to remain in near-continuous operation.
Even the most efficient new liquid sulfur batteries won’t help drones stay airborne for lengthy inspections of electric transmission towers or other major infrastructure. And docking stations invariably take the drone out of service which can prevent it from meeting its tightly coordinated logistics schedule.
Wireless charging stations are physical structures but they do not require actual drone docking – just sufficient proximity to send and receive a Wi-Fi signal using a wireless connection pre-installed in the drone. PowerMat, for example, allows for 600W charging in all-weather conditions, even heavy rain and snow. The company also claims its platforms are suited for security and surveillance drones, monitoring and maintenance drones, delivery drones, agriculture drones and mapping drones, among others. The system seems versatile but the drone must still be on or near a landing pad for charging to occur.
Last year, WiBotic, which focuses on industrial wireless charging for a wide range of robotic devices, including drones, was granted equipment authorization for high power transmitters and receivers from the FCC. The transmitters provide up to 300 watts of wireless power through inductive charging. Industry sources say it’s the first time the FCC has granted approval of wireless charging for use in mobile robots and other devices with larger batteries. WiBotic executives envision a huge growth in demand for their chargers as the FAA moves to loosen regulations on drone operators’ use of Beyond the Visual Line of Sight navigation. That’s because UAV operators will naturally want to make the most of their expanded flight range and time airborne by streamlining their recharging logistics.
In fact, wireless drone charging may not be the final frontier. The self-piloting Boomerang drone developed by Identified Technologies charges and swaps out its own batteries, all but eliminating major flight interruptions. Other companies, including BAE Systems and Airbus, have begun developing solar-powered drones that can stay airborne for an entire year. One experimental BAE model known as Phasa-35, developed in conjunction with Prismatics, features a drone with a 35-meter wingspan comparable to a Boeing 737’s, but it weighs just 150 kilograms. BAE conducted its first full-fledged test flight of its new drone in the United States in February 2021. When fully operational, Phasa-35 is expected to be utilized for military surveillance, border protection and disaster relief.