Drones have been getting a lot of love from agencies, businesses, and general consumers lately, with people applying them to all types of jobs and entertainment. But like most modern technologies, today's drones have an annoying Achilles heel: You have to recharge them periodically at a ground-based outlet or swap their batteries to keep them from doing a pretty ungraceful face plant into the ground. But developers could soon have a drone ready to go that can charge wirelessly while still in the air.
Scientists from Imperial College London modified an off-the-shelf quadcopter, placing a copper foil ring around its casing to serve as a receiving antenna. They then developed a transmitter or base unit, connecting a circuit board to a power source and electronics. As electricity runs through a coil within the base unit, the base unit produces a magnetic field. When the drone is placed within close proximity to the base unit, the magnetic field interacts with the receiving antenna, generating an electrical current.
This process, known as inductive coupling, isn't new -- it was pioneered in the 1890s by inventor Nikola Tesla. It's already being used for devices you enjoy, such as electric toothbrushes and smartphones, and developers even are working on cars that can charge using the concept. And other companies are working on how to power drones in the air, too--Boeing, for example, was awarded a patent for a tether-based charging system. But up until now, nobody's been able to create a tether-free, truly wireless drone that can hover while charging. If perfected, the wireless, charge-in-air models would enable you to apply the devices to much more time-intensive jobs and fly over longer distances.
How your business could benefit
Researchers point out that, if a drone can charge in the air, the devices become more practical for space exploration or military missions. But the implications are big for general businesses, too. For example, major companies like Amazon already are looking into drone delivery for their products, working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FFA) to develop clear guidelines for commercial drone operation and safety. Drones that can recharge and stay in the air indefinitely could decrease expenses for businesses, getting products to people faster. Additionally, charging bases along a given route would enable companies to use drones over a wider delivery area, potentially increasing their customer base. Outside of delivery, businesses could use the drones to further expedite work in situations where human navigation or work is unsafe or unpractical.
There's still work to do
In-air charging for drones is about a year away from being commercially viable, according to the scientists who developed the new model. Within that time, researchers still have a lot of work to do. The distance the current can travel through inductive coupling depends on coil diameter and the number of times you wind it, so right now, the experimental drones have to stay very close to the base units. Tapping into resonance frequencies might solve this conundrum, as it can amplify the range of the inducted current. Even after scientists address this issue, they still have to make sure that they've taken good safety precautions. Researchers still are conducting rigorous studies due to concerns about the health implications of exposure to magnetic fields.
Drone technology constantly is evolving in terms of how people apply it. With this new approach, you soon might see drones doing much more work for a variety of businesses. Keep an eye on the improvements to decide whether including these types of drones could give your own company a boost.