Drone Swarms Could Become Flying Power Plants

In this concept image, a New Wave Energy drone carries a solar-power cell on top, wind-power rotors underneath.

Amazon may be planning to have drones deliver products to customers within 30 minutes, but Amazon Prime Air is far from the most ambitious plan to use flying autonomous robots for customer service.

U.K.-based New Wave Energy plans to use drones to deliver electricity – a lot of electricity. The power will be renewable, and generate no noxious gasses, radioactivity, or even much carbon dioxide. New Wave, in fact, doesn’t even plan to use real estate to generate power: Its “aerial power plant” will consist of masses of giant, square drones designed to hover indefinitely above 30,000 feet, beyond the reach of most destructive weather systems, where the sun is intense and the wind is steady.

The self-powering drones would generate a total of about 400 megawatts of power – enough to power about 400,000 houses – using an onboard solar panel, along with their own motion and the wind at that altitude, according to company backgrounders.

Putting a sun-and-wind generating plant in the air rather than in wind farms offshore or across what New Wave Energy estimates would be approximately 262 acres of sunny real estate would save approximately £17 billion in land costs, construction, cabling, rights-of-way and other costs of terrestrial power plants, according to the company.

Designs call for the drones to be relatively flat (65-feet square) and carry four rotors on top, along with as many as a dozen under the edges of the frame to generate wind power, in addition to the solar power panels that make up most of its surface.

Each would generate approximately 50 kilowatts, which would require that 8,000 drones in the air at all times to generate the 405 megawatts company founders predict they can create.

The efficiency of the comparatively small wind-generators would require the total area of drones in the air be about twice that of an offshore wind farm generating the same amount of power, according to a Nov. 25 interview with New Wave director Michael Burdett in Gizmag.

“At 50,000 feet there is very little air traffic and biodiversity, unless you go over the Himalayas,” Burdett told Gizmag as partial explanation for the company’s choice of altitude. “Implementing a system in these conditions will not obstruct any existing systems.”

New Wave drones would deliver the power using wireless power transmission (WPT) – microwaves focused in a tight beam able to deliver energy very efficiently to a base station.

For years, astrophysicists and science-fiction writers have advocated solar power via satellites in orbit with access to direct sunlight, rather than depend on acres of solar cells and light filtered through miles of heavy, sometimes opaque, atmosphere. NASA, Boeing, IEEE and others have all suggested the construction of solar-power-generating satellites.

But the cost of building and launching the array is so high that any plans to put a such a system in orbit have been put on hold, though research and design continue; The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency – Japan’s NASA – expects to put a solar-power plant in orbit some time during the 2030s.

Putting drones in the lower atmosphere could prove more economically feasible than trying to place multiple power-generating satellites in orbit. In November, New Wave Energy put an application for a fund-raising project to crowdsourcing startup Kickstarter (and posted its Kickstarter video on YouTube). With the $500,000 it hopes to raise, New Wave could put its first prototype in the air within six months after the funding effort is complete.

 

Image: New Wave Energy