Solar takes to the skies
Over the past few years, companies like Facebook and Amazon have been recruiting drone pilots and engineers for new airborne initiatives.
The New Way
The drone market is undoubtedly experiencing a boom, partly due to the increasing acceptance of commercial use and relaxed government policy. The global market for commercial drones is expected to reach $5.59 billion by 2020, boosted by fresh interest from diverse areas such as monitoring and internet-driven media. Until recently, the market had been dominated by rotary blade drones, but the utilization of solar power is coming to the fore, spurred by projects like Facebook’s Aquila drone and the acclaimed Solar Impulse aircraft.
The solar network
Facebook’s move into the drone market forms part of the larger Internet.org project, which aims to provide affordable internet access for areas of the world without reliable connection. Drones are an obvious choice due to their ease of handling and ability to perform the same functions as satellites, but at a lower cost. However, in order for drones to deliver dependable internet access, they need to remain airborne for as long as possible. This is where solar energy comes in—the Aquila craft can be powered by the sun during the day, and uses a battery that stores energy for nighttime operations. The Aquila drone will be just one craft in an entire fleet deployed by Facebook, and will be expected to fly continually for 90 days at an altitude between 1,800 and 2,700 meters, powered entirely by ecological solar energy. During flight, the drones will re-transmit signals from ground stations using a laser, relaying data ten times faster than earlier technology allowed.
The Solar Impulse 2 aircraft (SI2), also powered solely by solar energy, has gained media attention with its attempt to fly around the world. Although the voyage is not yet complete, the team are already looking ahead and considering the possibility of developing solar powered drones—potentially impacting the market significantly. Rather than creating an unmanned version of SI2, the idea is to “scale down and make something lighter than for others who make light models and then try to scale up,” explains team pilot André Borschberg. An SI2- inspired drone would be able to launch and land using only solar power, and therefore operate without the costs and emissions involved in using rockets. Currently in the pre-design stage, such a development could be a game changer in the global market.
The cost of diversifying
Such endeavors come at a hefty price, but large companies anticipate future markets and provide substantial R&D budgets in order to stay ahead. Ben Schachter, an analyst at Macquarie Group, says, “Investors allow companies like Facebook or Google to explore these kind of non-core opportunities if, in the long term, they can be viable. As long as the core business of the company maintains its strength, I think investors will accept it.”
Photo credit:Facebook and Solar Impulse
Article from Solar Journal English vol.03 2016 issue