Solar Powered Drones: Everything You Need to Know in 2023

Drones are the unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) that are getting popular day by day, these can be autonomously used with embedded software or controlled remotely.

UAVs were originally developed through the twentieth century for military missions, now these are being used in forest fire monitoring, aerial photography, agriculture, patrolling along border lines and aerial surveillance etc.

Until 2013, drone or UAV technology was mainly the domain of the defense industry. However, In recent years, a significant increase has been seen in research and development expenditures for solar-powered aviation, particularly in drones, UAVs and other solar-powered aircraft. 

In this post, I will be covering all about the solar powered drones, including their working and also about some popular solar drones. 

How do solar powered drones work?

A drone could be flown without a battery as long as the sun is shining. Isn’t it awesome? Just add solar panels in a drone and it doesn’t need a battery to fly.

The three main features of a UAV system are the: 

1. Aircraft with common or other sensor features.

2. Ground control station (which may include a data processing centre).

3. Operator (or software instructions). 

In general, drones have four motors. The drone can hover, climb, descend, and turn by varying the power to these four motors.

Let’s understand the physics of drones for each of the motions performed by drones.

Vertical Motion

Drone uses its rotors for propulsion and control.  As the spinning blades push the air downwards, the air pushes up on the rotors. 

This basic idea is used to control upward and downward movement. Faster the rotation of the rotor, the greater will be the lift and vice-versa.

Turning (or rotating)

Let’s elaborate this with a diagram given below: 

Turning or rotating motion in solar powered drones

The red rotors rotate counterclockwise and the green ones rotate clockwise in this configuration. 

The total angular momentum of the two rotor sets is zero when they rotate in opposite directions. 

And, the angular momentum depends on the rotors’ spinning speed. 

When we decrease the spin of rotor 1 and 3 and increase the spin for rotors 2 and 4. In order for the drone body to rotate, the angular momentum of the rotors must equal zero.

Thrust and weight diagram in solar powered drones

Forwards & Sideways

The rotors need to generate forward thrust in order to fly forward. The  side view (with forces) of a drone is given which is moving at a constant speed.

Since there is a greater force in the drone’s back, it will tilt forward. 

Adding thrust to all rotors will produce a net thrust force that balances the weight and moves forward.

In the case of solar powered drones, panels were too bulky for drones to be powered by them. But with the thin, flexible, lightweight solar panels, the situation has changed.

A flexible solar panel is made by slicing silicon wafers down to a few micrometers thick. Most solar panels are up to 200 micrometers thick.

Solar powered drones carry lithium ion batteries. The solar cells will charge lithium ion batteries  for longer flight time.

Related: 21 Surprising Benefits of Solar Energy

Applications of Solar powered drones

These solar-powered UAVs have similar use cases to general drones. The drone revolution is transforming the main areas of activity, since drones can handle complex tasks and reduce costs.

Drones have the capability to gather real time data effectively, to deliver loads and have initiated the rapid-fire elaboration of numerous artificial, marketable, and recreational operations.

Some general applications are listed below:

01. For Safety Inspection 

Solar powered drones can be used for safety inspections in a variety of ways. For example, they can be used to inspect hazardous areas that are difficult to access with traditional methods.

These devices can also be used to inspect pipelines and other infrastructure for any potential damage or leakage.

Additionally, drones are super useful in monitoring hazardous sites for any potential environmental hazards, such as chemical spills or radiation and even damaged buildings or debris.

02. For Medical Purposes

Drones are capable of delivering microbiological and laboratory samples, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, emergency medical equipment, and patient transports.

They can be used to transport medical supplies and personnel to otherwise difficult-to-reach locations, to monitor and survey remote areas for health hazards, or to provide telecommunications services in areas with limited access to technology.

03. For Surveillance 

Most UAVs are (or can be) equipped with camera technologies that can record and transmit photo images to the ground control station. 

These technologies have come cheaper and further sophisticated and allow image prisoners at lesser distances with lesser resolution.

04. Crop Monitoring

In order to achieve the best yields, farmers use the field data collected by drones to plan their planting and treatments. 

In an industry with typically slim profit margins, precision farming systems can increase yields by as much as 5%, which is a significant increase.

05. In Militaries

Military use of drones has become the primary use in the world. It is primarily used for target decoys, for research development and supervision. 

Solar powered drones can be used in militaries for a variety of purposes. They can be used for reconnaissance, surveillance, and reconnaissance-strike missions. Additionally, these can be used for intelligence gathering, border patrol, and search and rescue operations.

These drones offer the advantage of being able to stay airborne for longer periods of time than traditional powered drones, providing a more reliable and cost-effective means of gathering data.

06. Spray Application 

Drone sprayers are used to navigate very hard to reach areas, such as steep tea fields at high elevations and perform targeted sprays.

07. Planting and Seeding

Automated drone seeders are mostly being used in forestry industries where there are hard to reach or endangering areas.

Since drones can be remotely controlled and flown at various distances and heights, they are perfect for tackling some of the most challenging tasks. 

A drone has even made its way into our homes as a source of entertainment for hobbyists and a vital tool for photographers.

Drone has already been altered in many fields and current drone technologies are also improving Artificial Intelligence to make drone technology more useful and effective ways.

Related: Applications of Solar Power

Difficulties and Uncertainties

Generally solar powered drones  require long flight time and reliable power supply. However, current UAV designs utilising traditional battery or fuel cells usually struggle to meet such requirements.

Mounting solar panels onto the quadcopter is hard to achieve since solar panels are fragile and vulnerable, it’s easy to bring damage to the solar panels.

Currently, the best solar cells available in the market possess an efficiency of approximately 20%, which is only able to prolong the flight time. 

Market barriers for civil and commercial applications include: 

  • Incomplete or immature air space regulations that affect UAV systems.
  • Liability for civil operations
  • No secure non-military frequencies 
  • Negative consumer perception
  • Lack of operator training/safety standards
  • Limited payload capacity and space restrictions.

Some Most Advanced Drones in the World

Drones are becoming increasingly popular, and it is no wonder – they are incredibly versatile machines! 

From capturing stunning aerial footage to providing valuable data for businesses, drones can do it all. 

In this section, we’ll be exploring some of the most advanced drones in the world right now. 

We’ll look at their features, specs, and capabilities that make them stand apart from the rest.

1. Zephyr

This is a solar powered drone built by AirBus which is currently in the testing stage by the US Army. It flies in a stratosphere that is above the weather conditions.

It can be hand-launched from a runway and despite having a wingspan of 82 feet, it weighs around 165 pounds. On June 15, 2022, the Army launched a Zephyr aircraft that remained in the air as of July 29, setting a new world record for long-endurance flight.

2. SolarXOne

A French company XSun introduces this fully solar powered UAV,  programmable to be 100% autonomous during all flight phases.

With a wingspan of 4.5 meters and a weight of 25 kg, it can carry up to 5 kg of payload, which can include gyroscopes, thermal imaging cameras, LIDAR, and cutting-edge communications equipment.

It has a daily flight endurance of 600 km and has a range of 12 hours day and night.

3. Qimingxing-50

This is China’s first solar powered drone or satellite with a high altitude long endurance with a wide span of 50m.

It is the first large-sized UAV powered only by solar energy & is capable of high altitude aerial reconnaissance, assessing forest fire and can also be used for communications.

This drone can be used in the field of renewable energy, new materials and aeronautical engineering.

Related: Renewable vs Non-renewable Energy

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Companies that manufacture drones are developing innovative solutions to provide advanced surveillance and security capabilities for monitoring and protecting assets.

Future of Solar powered drones

It has been seen that small private companies, and large tech- and aviation companies jump into the drone industry.

The drone industry was estimated by ABI research to climb to $8.4 billion by 2019. 

It’s not just the deals of the tackle, it’s substantially the operations and services where utmost growth is anticipated.

One of the most instigative developments in UAV technology has been the use of solar energy.

The global solar- powered UAV request is anticipated to be valued at $378.2 million in 2025, and is projected to reach $881.7 million by 2035, growing at a CAGR of 8.6 from 2026 to 2035.

The evolution of technologies such as artificial intelligence, 3D imaging, big data analytics, and others has promoted the growth in the adoption of advanced technologies in drones for accomplishing time-sensitive missions. 

The technological advancements in drones propels the usage of modern drones in many industries.

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